A new television comedy (sitcom) series called Aliens in America premiers on the CW channel tonight across USA. One of the two central characters in the series is a Pakistani ‘exchange’ student who comes to a small MidWesters town High School and there has to deal with all sorts of issues of prejudice, stereotying, etc. All this in a humorous sitcom medium where (we are told) he helps those around him to discover that their prejudices and stereotypes are misplaced and learns to overcome some of his own stereotypes.
The character of the Pakistani student, Raja, is played by Adhir Kalyan who is getting extremely good reviews in the pre-premier showings. Adhir (originally from South Africa) is not himself not from Pakistan, nor a Muslim, but the character he is playing is both. Indeed, the Pakistaniness and the Muslimness of ‘Raja’ is the central premise of the entire show.
Here is how the official website for the show explains its premise:
Justin Tolchuck (Dan Byrd, The Hills Have Eyes) is a sensitive, lanky 16-year old just trying to make it through the social nightmare of high school in Medora, Wisconsin, with the help of his well-meaning mom Franny (Amy Pietz, Caroline in the City), aspiring-entrepreneur dad Gary (Scott Patterson, Gilmore Girls) and his beautiful and popular younger sister Claire (Lindsey Shaw, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide). Although he’s bright and funny, Justin is also shy, socially awkward and pretty much resigned to the fact that he’ll never be one of the cool kids. Franny, however, is the kind of take-charge mom who micro-manages her family, and she’s come up with a plan to help Justin: she signs up for the school’s international exchange student program. Picturing an athletic, brilliant Nordic teen, Franny is sure this new friendship will bestow instant coolness on her outsider son.
However, when the Tolchuck’s exchange student arrives, he turns out to be Raja Musharaff (Adhir Kalyan, Fair City), a 16-year-old Muslim from a small village in Pakistan. Raja is thoughtful, responsible and wise beyond his years. To the Tolchucks and everyone else in Medora, he’s also just about as foreign as a foreigner can be. While the rest of the family is slightly freaked out by the Muslim in their midst, Gary is comforted by the fact that the host family receives a monthly check to help with expenses. This fits right in with Gary’s money-making schemes, and when he sees how hard-working and respectful Raja is, he’s totally on board. As for Claire, she’s too busy with her friends and her new boyfriend to pay much attention to their houseguest, but Raja is smitten from the moment he first sees her.
After the initial shock wears off, Justin is quickly won over by Raja’s humor, gestures of friendship and by their common status as outsiders. Despite the cultural chasm between them, Justin and Raja develop an unlikely bond that just might allow them to navigate the minefield that is contemporary high school. It’s going to be a very interesting year for Raja, Justin, his family and the entire population of Medora. “Aliens In America” is from CBS Paramount Network Television Inc. and Warner Bros. Television with executive producers Tim Doyle (Jake in Progress), Moses Port (Just Shoot Me, Mad About You) and David Guarascio (Just Shoot Me, Mad About You), and co-executive producers Richard Day (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show) and Michael Glouberman (Malcolm in the Middle, 3rd Rock From the Sun).
Being a sitcom and in the tradition of US sitcoms, it is – as one would and should expect – an exaggerated character. But it seems (from the clips one has seen and some of the reviews) that some thought is being placed on serious lessons. The show promises to touch on some sensitive issues. Issues of prejudice, issues of common human bonds, and issues of stereotypes. Humor is a very good medium to deal with these issues. As long as it is done tastefully and taken in the spirit of humor by all. One hopes that it will, in fact, do so with the sensibility these issues deserve but also as good fun. (There will be those Pakistanis and Muslims who will argue that Pakistanis and Muslims are not really like this – the skull cap, for example. Of course, they are not. Its a sitcom, folks. Not a documentary!)
Here are some reviews of the show that have appeared in the US press.
It’s a premise that in the wrong hands could be boorish and not at all amusing, so it is to the writers’ credit that Aliens is instead fresh, funny and charming in a tart, sardonic way, one of the best sendups of adolescent angst since The Wonder Years and Malcolm in the Middle (and perhaps even My So-Called Life). – New York Times.
Albeit at bottom a standard “strange-neighbors” comedy, Aliens in America” is a hopeful sign that we may finally be emerging pop-culturally into the post-post-9/11 age â€” or, at any rate, a post-24 age, in which we are ready to find a little humor in the Clash of Civilizations, rather than just wanting to bathe in bloody fantasies of prophylactic superspies. – LA Times.
Funny, charming and smart, the ultimate appeal of this series about a middle-class Wisconsin family and the foreign exchange student who comes into their home is the winning way in which it explores core tensions of post-Sept. 11 American life. Trying to make a nation laugh about the conflict between its historic commitment to multiculturalism and current fear of terrorists is a tall order, but Aliens looks like it has the comedic goods to do just that. – Baltimore Sun.
Despite plenty of surface sparkle, there is something discomforting about the show, and not just because it borrows tone and form from other sitcoms with youthful heroes, especially Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. The show says not only that racism but also bullying, baiting, ignorance, homophobia and other social afflictions can be quite hilarious. Maybe up to a point â€” but it’s a point beyond which Aliens in America unfortunately seems willing to go. It’s no fun to laugh and then feel guilty about it. – Washington Post.
Of course, this immediately reminds one of the Canadian sitcom by Zarqa Nawaz called Little Mosque on the Paraire. We had written about it here at ATP and from all reports it has been a smashing success in Canada. Aliens in America is trying to repeat that performance. One is also reminded of Kashif Memon who, for a few weeks, took the America’s Most Talented by storm. That was not quite the same league but that probably also points to this growing interest in Muslims, including Pakistanis, in America.
The pedigree and previous projects of some of the people involved in this show and the type of reviews it is getting suggests that there will be much to talk about Aliens in America as it proceeds.
We at All Things Pakistan wil keep an eye on it. We hope that it will live up to its promise and send fortha positive message instead of only solidifying existing prejudices. We invite Pakistani (and other) reactions to it.