AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Reality television isn't exactly known for its reality. It's known for churning out what we loosely refer to as characters. Tonight, a new cast of characters will be introduced in a new reality TV show on the cable network TLC.
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CORNISH: "All-American Muslim" follows five Arab-American families living in Dearborn, Michigan.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dearborn is a whole 'nother world, number one most concentrated community of Muslims outside the Middle East.
CORNISH: The show is an attempt to portray an often-maligned and stereotyped group in all its diversity - not as characters, but as people. Joining us now is Eric Deggans. He's a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Eric, welcome to the program.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So let's dig in with the show's cast. It follows five families in Dearborn, Michigan. Who did they decide to follow for this program?
DEGGANS: Well, it was interesting. Producers seemed to find a range of people - all, you know, negotiating how devout they were as Muslims, and how much they wanted to assimilate into America. In particular, there's a family, the Amen family, where you have three daughters: one who always wears the hijab headscarf; you have another one who describes herself as kind of a redneck - she's kind of a wild child - she doesn't wear it; and then you have a third who stopped wearing it after 9/11, but then decided to put it back on when she was trying to conceive and having problems conceiving, because she's concerned that God may be punishing her.
CORNISH: And there's an interesting scene where she - once she's decided she is going to start wearing the headscarf, she talks to her husband about taking down the photos in her house.
SAMIRA AMEN-FAWAZ: They'd be finding dead people in the house - what, looking at pictures of me without my scarf and here I am, with a scarf, in front of them. Weird.
CORNISH: So much of the show is about assimilation.
DEGGANS: Or, I say it's a little different than that. What it's really about is several couples trying to decide how much of their religion, how much of their culture they want to hold onto, and how much they want to assimilate into American culture, and really saying, you know, I can be very strongly connected to my heritage but I can also be American, and I should be accepted - which is not normally how America works.
CORNISH: When most people think of cable reality TV - I mean, they're thinking of the Kardashians or frankly, any of the other shows on TLC about little people or big families or, you know - there's a little bit of a circus aspect to it. And is this really the right format to tackle issues like Islamophobia or racism or assimilation?
DEGGANS: Well, what's interesting is that we're used to reality TV shows that make fun of or exploit the stars. And clearly, I think that's something TLC avoided here, and that was a good move. They seem to be trying to tell these stories in a language that young viewers can understand - which is reality television. I've always said, reality TV is sort of the young viewers' version of a sitcom. So, they figured out a way to lighten up the ideas a little bit, and maybe deliver them to an audience that wouldn't normally be thinking about this stuff. But the problem with reality TV is that it's very manipulated and sometimes, you can't necessarily trust what you're seeing. For example, there was a scene where a couple goes to a restaurant, and they seem to be reacted to in a racist or prejudiced way. And...
CORNISH: Well, right. This character, she's wearing the headscarf and she's pregnant, and they're standing, waiting for the hostess to acknowledge them, for a really long time. And finally, they get seated. But it's one of those moments of, was there discrimination or was there not?
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NADER AOUDE: Maybe she didn't know.
NAWAL AOUDE: Didn't know what?
NADER AOUDE: To seat us.
NAWAL AOUDE: OK. You don't know but, like, ask. And not only that, you don't just throw menus on a table and walk away.
CORNISH: Eric, I know for me, that was a sort of familiar feeling when I was watching that scene - where sometimes, you're second-guessing your environment if you're in a place you're not familiar with. And in this scene, this couple had left Dearborn.
DEGGANS: Yeah, exactly. You know, as an African-American myself, I've been in situations where, you know, service is slow or something's weird and you sort of go, what's going on here? And what I wonder is, how contrived was this situation? Would a hostess really be stupid enough to discriminate against people in front of a camera crew? You know, these are all the questions that you have. But certainly on its face, this seems like a very regrettable situation.
CORNISH: You call reality television this generation's sitcom. What kind of track record does television have, in terms of introducing to the wider culture, people who are outside of that kind of white Protestant mold that we're used from - maybe the '50s and '60s?
DEGGANS: Sure. Well, you know, everyone sort of credits "The Cosby Show" for coming along and sort of mainstreaming this idea of a successful, upper-middle-class black family that people were able to accept. You know, it only makes sense that if you were to take a popular show and center it on a type of person that maybe, you know, a lot of people in America don't know, you know, then America gets to learn that culture. And I'm sure that's the hope with "All-American Muslim." I just wonder, you know, it's on a cable channel that has normally produced reality shows that have a lot more conflict. And, you know, the messages are subtler, I think. But I think the messages are very interesting, and I just hope people check it out.
CORNISH: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from his office in Florida. Eric, thanks for chatting with us.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
CORNISH: And you can catch the first episode of "All-American Muslim" tonight on TLC.
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