Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fall 2007 TV: Aliens in America

Aliens in America (The CW)

I'm not sure how, but The CW has made another show I really enjoyed. I expect the Rapture any day now.

Aliens in America is about 16-year-old Justin Tolchuck (Dan Byrd), who mistakenly believes he is finally beginning to fit in at high school. When a list of the ten sexiest girls in school is circulated (called, charmingly enough, the "10 Most Bangable List"), Justin's name is listed at #8, and he has the crashing realization that he's even more of a joke and an outcast than he had previously suspected. Justin's mother impulsively signs up for the Student Exchange Program, believing their family will be getting a striking Nordic boy, who will surely be friends with Justin, and raise his stock at school. (As Justin comments, "The saddest moment in a boy's life comes when he realizes his mother has to import a friend for him.") Instead, much to their dismay, they receive Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Pakistani Muslim, who can only make Justin an even bigger target of ridicule.

Adding to Justin's troubles are his younger sister, Claire, who has blossomed over the summer and skyrocketed past him in popularity (she's the #3 Most Bangable). Claire is played by Lindsey Shaw, whom you might recognize from Nickelodeon's Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, if you are as immature as I am. Even if the actress herself is 18 (I checked), she's playing 15 here, which makes the camera's frequent and loving focus on her bouncing cleavage a bit unsettling. By which I mean, I encourage it, but I feel a little bad about it.

And Justin's parents aren't much help. Mom Franny (Amy Pietz of Caroline in the City) is controlling and staunchly conservative; as she fearfully remarks upon Raja to her husband, "Terrorists pose as students. Bill O'Reilly said so." And Dad Gary (Scott Patterson of Gilmore Girls, replacing Patrick Breen from the original version of the pilot) doesn't want to get involved, as long as he gets his subsidy from the Student Exchange Program, and Raja cleans up around the house.

But while his mother tries to figure out how to "return" Raja, Justin finds himself forming a quick and strong friendship with this kind and thoughtful stranger. Perhaps the two outcasts can survive high school together.

It took a while for this show to win me over. It finally did when Raja faced his first day of American high school alone (while Justin faked illness to stay home). Up to that point, the show had been decent, with some good moments, but not tremendously remarkable. It was the way this culture clash unfolded that I found especially interesting and well-made. It could've played as very broad and clumsy, but instead the writing was sharp, funny, and more than a little poignant.

Sure, there are any number of juvenile taunts directed Raja's way ("Apu! Where's my Squishee?"). But it's the depth and scope of the institutionalized ignorance he encounters that makes the sequence soar -- as when he's singled out in class by one of his teachers, who uses his presence as an opportunity to create a discussion group, one completely clueless about Raja, his country, his religion ("Muslimism"), his heritage, and the simple facts of 9/11. When Raja objects to "his people" being blamed for the Twin Towers, the teacher shushes him, and asks the class, "Now, who else is angry about Raja?" Everybody raises their hands. Very funny, but also kind of sad.

Smart and funny passages like this, and the rapid bonding between Justin and Raja, are what elevate this show above standard sitcom fare -- certainly well above any CW sitcom. This is a show with fleshed-out characters, not the caricatures I had feared. Raja's revelation that his parents died a year earlier wouldn't have been nearly so touching and believable if he weren't so real as a character. "That must have been hard," Franny says kindly, finally seeing Raja as a person. "It was. It is," he replies, softly and movingly. It's a powerful moment, played very well by Kalyan.

It wasn't a non-stop laughfest, and some of the gags didn't quite work, especially at the top of the show. But when the comedy works, it really scores. This is a damn fine new sitcom, a real gem for The CW, and one I highly recommend.

A quick note on the music: I thought for a while the soundtracks for Aliens and lead-in show Everybody Hates Chris has been switched; Chris is the one set in 1985, but Aliens kept playing songs 20 or 30 years old and older. Men Without Hats, "Pop Goes the World": 1987. The Cure, "Close To Me": 1985. Yes, "I've Seen All Good People": 1971. Thunderclap Newman, "Something in the Air": 1969. I mean, I love all those songs (maybe not so much "Pop Goes the World"), but some of them are even before my time. If they were trying to come up with the most irrelevant songs to high schoolers in the year 2007: mission accomplished.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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