Unlikely friends navigate ‘Aliens in America’
By: Helena Andrews
October 4, 2007 11:52 AM EST
To understand the potential pay-off of the new CW comedy “Aliens in America” it’s best to begin at the end.
By now many are familiar with the show’s hilarious premise: a Midwestern mom desperately needs a friend for her awkward/loser son and ends up with Raja Musharaff-a Pakistani exchange student, who practices “Muslimism.”
Both outsiders, Raja and Justin Tolchuk become fast and not too unlikely friends by navigating the terrors of high school together.
But when Franny Tolchuk catches the boys in the act-prostrating in prayer towards Mecca-Raja’s booked on the first one-way back to Islamabad before you can say “as-salamu alaykum.”
It was in the final scene of this week’s premiere episode, according to several Muslim watchers who work on the Hill and at Washington-based advocacy groups that lifted “Aliens” from sappy sitcom to something more.
In it, while Raja slowly folds shirts to lie back into his suitcase, Mother Tolchuk learns he doesn’t have parents to go home to.
“It’s funny how everything you think about a person can change in an instant,” narrates Justin in a “Wonder Years” style that continues throughout the series.
“For all the times my mother referred to Raja as ‘that boy,’ she didn’t really see him as one until right then.”
That instant is what makes “Aliens” must-see-TV for politicos like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who once said the United States should consider bombing the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina as a “deterrent.”
Or even CNN host Glenn Beck who in 2006 asked freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is also Muslim, to prove he was not “working with our enemies.”
Laila Al-Qatami, director of communications at the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organization in Washington, hopes “Aliens” will kick start some conversations along with the laughs-of which there are many.
“They were trying to raise awareness through humor,” said Al-Qatami. “It was a good way to expose people to the prejudices that do exist.”
Assad R. Akhter, a legislative assistant for Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.) agreed.
“I think a lot of us welcome this as a way to dialogue about things,” explained Akhter, who is also a member of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, a networking group that provides support for its members and seeks to foster cultural understanding with non-Muslim staffers.
Akhter, who has yet to see a full episode of the show (TiVo fatigue), said humor is a non-confrontational way to bridge the subjects of prejudice, identity and race. “You might be uncomfortable saying, ‘Yeah, I am uncomfortable,'” added Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington. “The issues are raised in a way people can comprehend and are able to deal with.”
The first episode adeptly sidesteps offensive name calling-sort of, this is high school, after all-while still managing to address the obvious elephant in the
classroom. Is salwar kameez-clad Raja a terrorist or not?
In a scene featured prominently in the promo trailers, one eager teacher asks Raja how he feels about being “so different” than everyone else. When he balks, she turns to the rest of the class for help.
“Well I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York,” deadpans one girl.
Teens, they say the darnedest things that, unfortunately, some adults might be thinking. By approaching the issue of racial profiling through the mouths of babes, “Aliens” turns a retrospective, as opposed to accusatory, eye on its audience.
Another plus, “Raja from Pakistan”-as his teachers call him-is a two-dimensional character with a back story.
“He has a more human face,” said Assad, adding that his character shows “true emotion, as opposed to the one side of Muslim that people see on TV.”
There were obvious initial concerns about “Aliens” becoming a campier version of Fox’s “24.” Fox serial hit about counter-terrorism has been routinely criticized for portraying its Muslim characters solely as extremists or sleeper cellers.
The Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affair Council, a public policy group based in Los Angeles, consulted on “Aliens” and sent a message to its members reminding them of the show’s premiere.
Nadia Naviwala, a legislative aide to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), pointed out that MPAC is considered a liberal Muslim group. “I think the perfect audience would be high school Muslim kids, but I think a lot of their parents wouldn’t want them to watch it,” said Naviwala.
At the start of Monday’s show a list of the “most bangable chicks” floats around Medora High-and Justin is No. 8. In next week’s episode Raja and Justin are accused of being lovers.
Naviwala, a legislative aide in Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) office, said her parents switch the channel when there’s “kissing on TV.”
Still, having a Muslim character co-starring on primetime network television is major. Although CAIR’s Hooper conceded it might be difficult for the show to hit “that one note all the time”-connecting the playful and the political-“Aliens” has obvious merits.
“It’s a good base to start from,” explained Assad. “I think Americans appreciate people who are able to laugh at themselves.”
Unlikely friends navigate ‘Aliens in America’