Reality TV, meet your newest Snooky.

Well, not exactly.

This week, TLC launched a very interesting look into a minority that – up until now – has not been truly explored on American television: the American Muslim. So it’s only appropriate that the name of the show is … wait for it … “All-American Muslim”. (That’s right: leave it to the creative geniuses at TLC to come up with that brilliantly ambiguous title. Who would’ve thunk.)

The show follows the lives of 5 Arab-American families, revealing their daily encounters within their environment, and their role as a minority struggling to strike the balance between maintaining its identity and meshing with the surrounding American culture.

In theory, I’m all for it. What better way for the US to learn more about this greatly misunderstood group of their own citizens than to thrust them in all their hijab-covered glory right into American’s living rooms? It’s the MTV generation afterall, and everyone knows that the best way to teach people about a different culture is to pump their cable-crazed looky holes up with candid images of “them” being just like “us”.

Right? Well, maybe.

I have to admit, I’m thrilled that there is an interest in the media to cover this area of our demographic; in fact I’m all for it. It’s a portion of our society that hasn’t quite gotten a spotlight where it can be on stage, to be prodded and poked by the American audience like every other group. I’m fairly certain there’s a passage in the Constitution that says something about how each ethnic group is entitled to their 15 minutes. I’m almost positive it’s there, but someone should probably look that up.

My concern is that using reality television as the medium to depict the typical picture of the American Muslim isn’t without its drawbacks. Specifically, as it’s developed, this particular televised mechanism has become synonymous with staged, artfully edited scenarios; commonly picturing set-ups that are contrived and – for the lack of a better word – fake.

While the families featured in the show have varying lifestyles (there’s a conservative, covered woman, a hippie, liberal non-conformist and a converted Irish-Catholic), they do manage to touch upon the issues that most Americans can at least on some level relate to: suspicious looks, odd behavior by others, and outright discrimination. To boot, there are everyday, common practices that also take place; easily identifiable by the American mainstream public. A smart move on the part of the show’s creators, but again, I wonder how sincere those scenarios will be interpreted by the viewing audience. Even though the ratings for reality shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘ are through the roof, it is with the understanding that what we are watching is pure entertainment, not in any way an informative revelation about that group of people.
What’s more: the show is filmed in Dearborn, Michigan – where the nation’s highest population of Muslims resides. To say that the show is slanted (and consequently affected) by this environment, where the surroundings are more apt to receive and interact with this ethnic group positively, would be an understatement. There is no real way to accurately portray the day-to-day lives of American Arabs and Muslims without taking into account where they live within the country. The preferable move: follow the lives of families that live in different states. Voila! Simple fix, and one that already lends itself to a more built-in credibility. For crying out loud, it’s not brain surgery.

We won’t be able to measure the full effect of ‘All-American Muslim’ until well into this first season, but in all sincerity, I do hope it will translate into a successful revelation of one of America’s most misunderstood group of citizens. However, if the first episode is any indication, it will have an uphill battle. The feedback is already a-buzz with critics hailing the show as slightly contrived, the main characters even boring at times and the stories edited at an almost hurried pace (one of the women’s fiancé, Jeff McDermott, converts to Islam in a seemingly rushed, casual way). But the ratings were solid: 1.7 million viewers tuned in for the series opener, making it the number 2 show in its time period with 1.5 and 1.8 ratings for women aged 18-49 and 18-34, respectively.

One thing’s clear: at least now there’s an opportunity for conversation to take place about what it means to be American and Muslim in 21st Century USA. And that’s progress.

‘All-American Muslim’ airs on TLC on Sundays at 10pm EST.

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