Ahmad Meree didn’t feel represented onscreen, especially in North America. The Syrian actor and playwright is one of several changing the game with NBC and Sphere Media’s medical drama, “Transplant.” The series, which originally aired on Canada’s CTV, follows Syrian refugee Bashir Hamed (Hamza Haq) who comes to Canada and becomes an emergency room doctor.
“Transplant,” the recent honoree at the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Media Awards, has been a labor of love for its cast, series showrunner Joseph Kay, and production company Sphere Media. For executive producer Tara Woodbury, the series held a personal connection for her; her brother-in-law is a refugee who’d relocated to a new country. “I shared with him [Kay] a bit of my brother-in-law’s story and, at the same time, Canada was going through the process of trying to figure out how to help 40,000 Syrian refugees in a short amount of time,” Woodbury told IndieWire.
For both Woodbury and Meree, there was a desire to change the perceptions of how Muslims, specifically Muslim men, were portrayed. Each mentioned that the depictions they had seen before tended to emphasize Muslim men as terrorists or religious zealots. The discussion of prayer, and how Bashir looks at religion, was a particular discussion topic for Meree when he was brought onto the show as a cultural consultant.
“I was supporting the idea of ‘Let’s not see Bash praying a lot or [being] super religious,” Meree said. “At the same time this is also a problem because you’re trying to get the characters away from religion to show them as non-violent characters.” For Meree, he suggested to the creators that Bash balance both elements of the religion, having Bash explain that sometimes he prays five times a day and sometimes not at all. The series has been acclaimed for taking the facets of the hospital drama and using it as a springboard to look at the refugee crisis and the misconceptions of Muslim and Syrian men.
Meree said he felt a huge responsibility in being the cultural consultant for the series. He isn’t the only Syrian reading the scripts, but like any group, there isn’t a universal groupthink — and that extends to the series’ script. “Sometimes we don’t see the same things,” he said. The series has an open-door policy with regards to suggestions of authenticity. Outside of Meree’s suggestions, even leading man Haq is able to call out moments that don’t ring true. “The images we put out in the world, we have a responsibility in the care that we give to them,” Woodbury said. “We have to recognize that viewers empathize with the leads of the show.”
For example, early in Season 1, according to Woodbury, creator Kay put in a placeholder line with regards to Bash’s prayer routine. When Haq looked at the line he told Kay what the line should be, and it was changed for the finished episode. “There are so many people involved in our show and the Syrian contingent of people who are involved in our show are our backbone,” Woodbury said. “It might seem small to us, but it’s incredibly important and specific.”
But that wasn’t without challenges. As Woodbury explained, there wasn’t a lack of support by any stretch, but there was certainly a hesitation to greenlight a series that doesn’t just place a Syrian character in a lead role, but also one that’s heavily subtitled. It’s why the MPAC award holds such significance for the series, validating that all those challenges were worth it. It is bittersweet in that the cast and creators can’t come together to celebrate due to COVID.
“I hope that other producers and buyers are watching our success and realize that a mainstream show can have a refugee Muslim lead and find huge audience numbers. That feels exciting to me,” Woodbury said.
NBC’s “Transplant” has been renewed for a Season 2, and can now be watched on NBC.com.