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Salam-bast: Dark comedy skewers assumptions about Muslim life in Bay Ridge

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They’re filming the neighborhood from a different angle.

Bay Ridge is the backdrop for a darkly comic web series — “The Ridge” — about life as a Muslim in the neighborhood.

The protagonists acquire super powers in a freak accident and have to deal with their tough-to-control abilities while juggling real-world concerns like police surveillance and conservative parents.

The conflict doesn’t sound particularly “Muslim-y” (a term the show embraces) because young American Muslims are often more concerned about landing a good job or finding a date for the weekend than they are about hijab politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to the show’s creator — something he thinks the media often misses.

“I wanted to write roles that tell the real story of our community,” said creator and actor Ali Abbas, a first-generation American of Lebanese descent. “When we’re talking about Muslim shows, I want to talk about our actual problems. There are coming-of-age stories, and love stories, but we never get to those stories. I look at [television shows] “Tyrant” or “Homeland” — I don’t recognize those people, and I feel like that should be a red flag.”

The show is tinged with the supernatural, but the writing focuses on real character development rather than fetishizing an ethnicity — something that attracted the show’s producer.

“It’s not what you typically see in the media,” said producer Monte Bezell, a born-and-raised Park Sloper with Egyptian parentage who also plays an undercover cop on the show. “That was one thing that attracted me — that they do show these characters in a different light.”

Still, the protagonists aren’t perfect — they’re reminiscent of characters from “Seinfeld” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in their occasionally over-the-top egotism. But these aren’t foibles typically associated with particular races or creeds, Abbas said.

Abbas, a Chicagoland native raised in a tight-knit Muslim community, discovered Bay Ridge while reporting for the British Broadcasting Corporation, he said. He found many analogues there to his own Illinois Muslim community and realized the people and stories he encountered in his youth were common in Muslim-American experience, he said.

“When I went and did the story, I was like ‘Oh my god — there are archetypes and constants in our community no matter where you are,’ ” he said.

Abbas transitioned from journalism to screen-writing and came up with his concept for “The Ridge” while studying with improvisational comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, he said.

The production crew split shooting time between the streets of Bay Ridge and a Middle Eastern restaurant in Park Slope where interior scenes are set, he said.

In one scene, the protagonists accidentally kill an undercover cop who is spying on them and scramble to bury the evidence in Owl’s Head Park — though producers did have to use Prospect Park as a double for Owl’s Head when snow threatened the scene’s continuity, Abbas said.

Abbas and crew didn’t have to apply for permits to film the cop burial in Owl’s Head and Prospect parks — or other scenes near the Gowanus Canal — late last year, because police were too busy feuding with the mayor to care about film shoots, he said.

“Remember when the police took a break from writing tickets?” Abbas said. “It worked out so magically for shooting.”

Abbas has already planned two more seasons for the web series and said he aims to start shooting again in the fall. Bezell is shopping the show around to friends in the television industry, he said.

The first two episodes of “The Ridge” are available at muzz.nyc.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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