“Halal in the Family” sitcom tries, but fails

halalinthefamilyI was super-excited for the launch of “Halal in the Family,” a web series that the creator, Aasif Mandvi has described as “an exaggerated sitcom style to poke satirical fun at the racism and prejudice Muslims often experience in the United States and beyond.” It is a four-episode series, each episode lasting about five minutes and tackling a different theme/problem Muslims in America face.

Naturally, I was impatient to get to watch it. The series was advertised as taking on stereotypes of American Muslims, challenging norms of bigotry, and addressing “larger social and political issues.” And doing it in a fun, light-hearted way that emphasized change through the universal medium of humor.

However, “Halal in the Family” failed to excite. I wasn’t entertained, I wasn’t pleased, I wasn’t informed. In fact, I was borderline dismayed and angered. I was underwhelmed by the series; it was excessively mediocre. As a Muslim American, I didn’t feel I was represented at all. And any real social commentary was drowned out by stupid jokes, borderline sexist/racist remarks, and an incredibly narrow definition of “Americanness” that refused to allow Muslims to have any part in it.

The series tries to address stereotypes facing one group (American Muslims) by playing on stereotypes of other groups (women, Sikhs, “Americans,” conservatives, etc.). That doesn’t help anyone. Someone watching “Halal in the Family” without any real background knowledge might actually walk away with more stereotypes than they had when they sat down to watch, not just of other groups, but also of Muslims– which is exactly what the series was meant to combat.

The worst stereotype was that of Americans, who were portrayed to be all Islamophobic, white, conservative, bigoted people. If at its core, “Halal in the Family” seeks to prove how Muslims can be “all-American” as it claims, this portrayal of Americanness leaves no room for a Muslim identity. In fact, in the episodes, the characters are actually advised by the patriarch of the family (Aasif Mandvi) to downplay their Muslim identity by eating pork, advocating to ban Sharia law in high school, etc. so that they can be better Americans.

The first episode is meant to highlight the increasing trend of FBI moles inserting themselves into Muslim communities in order to report back on potential “terrorist” activities. It does an adequate job of highlighting this, if you know that; otherwise, you’re left awash in quasi-racist sentiment (Jordan Klepper guest stars as a Muslim, and repeated insinuations are made that Muslims aren’t/can’t be white).

In the second episode, the family turns its house into a “haunted terrorist camp” in a Halloween decoration contest, to beat their neighbors, who had turned their house into a mere haunted house. As a result of the “decorations,” the community stages a protest in front of the house, because they mistake it for a mosque and don’t want to see one built in their community. Again, if the viewer knows that the purported is that Islamophobic protests are stupid, the series is “meh;” but otherwise there’s just an underlying “Muslim houses=terrorist camps” assertion that isn’t overtly denied.

In the third episode, Aasif’s daughter is cyber-bullied. A classmate Photoshops a turban onto her head and depicts her driving a taxi. Aasif is upset, not that she is being bullied and stereotyped, but that she is being stereotyped as Sikh. The use of other stereotypes common (and which remain undisputed) in American society does not contribute to a sense of social justice in the series, but a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way the series (not us) depicts everyone.

In the final episode, Aasif’s son attempts to run for class president. His initial speech, according to Aasif, emphasizes his Muslim-ness too much, so he has his son dress up in red, white, and blue from tip to toe and emphasize a policy of banning Sharia law in his high school. In the end, a family (Muslim) friend prudently recommends that the son dismiss the anti-Sharia platform because, although it garners political votes in the national syste, it’s stupid; the son should just “say what’s in his heart,” to which the son responds that his real platform is the objectification of women (he wants to be able to ogle the female swim team during practice by making it open to the public). Yes, there is a real sociopolitical message in the commentary on anti-Sharia political platforms. But it is so short and unenthusiastic that it is overwhelmed by the final sexist remarks in the episode.

I wasn’t wowed. At all. It was a great idea, y’all, but it didn’t succeed. The execution of the plan left a lot to be desired, and I wouldn’t watch any more episodes if they came out. Sorry. If I was being generous, I’d give it 2/5 stars. I wish I had better things to say because we– as a society– could really use a tool like this that conveys information about serious issues through something as mundane as humor. But this series isn’t it.

For better Islamic humor, check out this list of recommended You Tube videos.