Can TV Change Americans’ Attitudes Toward Islam?

While everyone was freaking out about The Walking Dead finale last night, The Carmichael Show aired another episode illustrating a generational divide, one that’s familiar to anyone who’s sat at a dinner table with That Relative. In “New Neighbors,” Cynthia and Joe peer out of their front window at a young couple moving in across the street — who just happen to be Muslim.

“This is an opportunity for us to have an open, honest conversation,” Joe says in the cold open. He pauses. “What are they doing in my America?!” Cue the theme music, and let the uncomfortable conversations begin!

An episode like this shows what a difference a live studio audience can make. Few sitcoms tape their shows this way anymore — John Mulaney’s infamous flop, Mulaney, was supposed to resurrect the format before it was swiftly canceled — but “New Neighbors” benefits from the real reaction of its audience. “I see them as two abandoned bags at the airport,” Joe says of the neighbors. “Nobody should panic, but nobody should take their eyes off them either.” That line got a big, honking “oooh” from the audience, an indication of its boldness.

The reaction is also an indication of the lack of Muslim characters on TV in general. In February, Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore and spoke out against the representation of Muslims on TV, calling out the industry’s habit of portraying Muslim characters as terrorists. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that that are unrelated to national security,” he said. “It’s not that hard to do.”

Other shows have proven just how not that hard to do it is: between 2007 and 2012, one of Canada’s most popular shows was a sitcom called Little Mosque on the Prairie. Produced by the country’s national broadcaster, the CBC, Little Mosque centers on an attractive, hotshot lawyer from Toronto — the New York City of Canada only in the sense that everyone else in the country thinks it’s an overpriced cesspool of greed (and Torontonians think everyone else is just jealous) — who moves to a fictional town in Saskatchewan to become an imam. Co-created by a second-generation Muslim, Zarqa Nawaz, the show wasn’t terribly funny, but it made an impact in a country where 20% of the population is foreign-born. (Canada’s population also has a slightly higher proportion of Muslims than the States: 3% versus 1%.)

Little Mosque was eventually syndicated in 83 countries — but the United States wasn’t one of them. Nawaz told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, “We didn’t have 9/11, and we have a public broadcaster. 9/11 affected the American psyche in a major way, and you have to be sensitive to that.”

Still, as “New Neighbors” shows, American television is starting to make way for more and varied stories about Muslims. Last night’s Carmichael Show shares a lot of similarities with an episode of the short-lived Funny or Die series Halal in the Family, created last year by The Daily Show alum Aasif Mandvi. The series is a tongue-in-cheek sitcom satire: Its opening credits show familiar scenes of a nuclear family hanging around their suburban home, overlaid with credits in yellow block lettering and a theme song summarizing the show’s premise: “We’re just an ordinary family/ Living in your town (But don’t worry!)/ We like monster trucks and football/ Even though we’re brown (We hate curry!)” Mandvi plays the Sitcom Dad, and if his loud, patterned sweaters don’t tip you off to the reference, his last name is “Qu’osby.”

In one episode, a teacher from Aasif’s kids’ school visits, and mentions that he’s on his way to the mosque. Aasif immediately becomes suspicious: Mr. Thompson is white. When the teacher leaves, Aasif peers out his front window just like Cynthia and Joe, musing that he must be working with the FBI. He invites him over for dinner, where it becomes apparent that Mr. Thompson thinks Aasif is the mole.

When they realize it’s all just a big misunderstanding — “due to the fact that Muslims live under constant surveillance that few other groups are subjected to, while the FBI is busy recruiting people in our own community to spy on us” — they all laugh. Then, we cut to the outside of the house, where we see the family through binoculars. “They’re at it again,” a disembodied voice says. “They seem to be bowing to Allah in preparation for some sort of attack. No, no, I’m pretty sure they’re not just laughing. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Like that episode, “New Neighbors” demonstrates how suspicion and distrust can make people act in ugly ways. When Cynthia and Joe go across the street to introduce themselves, they notice a package on the neighbors’ doorstep that was sent from Pakistan. Paranoid, they take it back to their house, and eventually they open it to find a teddy bear. “Should I cut it open to see where the bomb is inside of it?” Cynthia says.

The episode doesn’t quite stick the landing; after the couple comes to Cynthia and Joe’s house to confront them about the package, it kind of peters out with little resolution. And I really wish The Carmichael Show would put Amber Stevens West’s Maxine to better use — she’s become the voice of liberal reason, a respectable if boring role, and her lines are rarely played for laughs. There is a funny line when new neighbor Zane tells his wife, “I told you things like this would happen in this neighborhood.” Joe asks why they moved there, then, and Zane replies that it was all they could afford. Joe says, yeah, us too.   

Now’s the part of the article where I evoke Will & Grace. The beloved NBC sitcom has long been credited with helping Americans adjust to the idea that gay people are not amoral sex maniacs out to corrupt the nation’s children. Studies show that exposure to positive portrayals of minority characters in pop culture have a real effect on people’s attitudes toward those minorities in real life.

On Twitter last night, most of the reactions to The Carmichael Show I saw were positive, but there were plenty of comments along the lines of “this is making me uncomfortable.” Maybe that’s how it should be. Despite their huge presence in the political conversation, Muslims are still largely absent from TV. Episodes like “New Neighbor” are a step in the right direction, if only because we need to expose our collective bigotry before we can deal with it.