I admit it: I was one of those people who wrote off Aliens in America immediately. Descriptions of a comedy in which a Midwestern mother tries to pump up her teenage son’s popularity by importing a strapping Aryan exchange student were troublesome enough. The fact that the hook was the brilliant plan being thwarted by a Muslim from Pakistan showing up on her doorstep made me gag a little. I already get weekly e-mails forwarded from people I wish didn’t have my address “informing” me that Barack Obama is a Muslim and therefore can’t be trusted as president (false, on more than one level), or that Muslims like to run trucks over little kids’ arms as punishment (still false). A sitcom that would encourage this kind of thinking by crossing the dusty ethnic joke line from unfunny to blatantly offensive was not something I was willing to watch (and I was more than a little put out with Scott Patterson for being in it).
I was really, really wrong.
The creators of Aliens in America, David Guarascio and Moses Port (Just Shoot Me, Mad About You), should demand cakes and pies of apology from the CW marketing department, because while their show does address issues of race and religion in post-9/11 America–more adroitly than any other network show–those issues are explored in the kind of teenage wasteland that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks so watchable. The Muslim exchange student is the voice of sanity, aspiration, and tolerance in the materialistic, hypersexualized tornado that is American adolescence.
Perhaps best of all, the discomfort brought about by bigotry and misunderstanding is worked out in the bosom of a tight-knit family of genial nutbars. That mother who ordered up a Scandinavian exchange student (Amy Pietz, of Caroline in the City fame)? She’s also the mom who still wants to dress her son, keeps oranges in the family van for the inevitable moment a drunk teen ralphs in the back seat, and ends up playing Mimi to her teenage son’s Roger in the community theater version of Rent. Scott Patterson‘s (Gilmore Girls) gruff family man is exasperated over his son’s complete disinterest in sports, but still loves the kid enough to find common ground singing “Space Oddity” while trapped in a snowdrift. Lindsey Shaw (Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide) and Adhir Kalyan perfectly embody opposite ends of the teenage cynicism and calculation spectrum. Best of all is Dan Byrd (Clubhouse), an actor apparently willing to go to any lengths to sell a joke, as the center of both worlds, a genial but geeky kid who tries both to manipulate and to avoid the social swirl but is unable to avoid doing the right thing.
This Sunday’s episode is a good example of all of Aliens in America‘s best qualities. Raja convinces the school’s #1 mean girl (and Justin’s long-time crush) that she is worthy of being respected for her brains instead of her looks. The Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins/Colonel Pickering triangle works swimmingly until Justin decides working on a science project is the perfect excuse to hit on the newly liberated diva. The episode explores the sexual pressures on teens and differences in cultural approaches to femininity and masculinity, but the best part might be a perfectly delivered throw-away line by Byrd in the lobby of a natural history museum two minutes before the end of the show. In the end, although Justin knows Raja is right about women, about respect, and about being a friend, the biggest laugh of the night comes when he’s right about larvae. Aliens in America is delightful rather than offensive, and it doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down–nothing medicinal ever tasted this good. Jump on the bandwagon this Sunday at 8:30 EDT.