Greetings loyal readers, and welcome to yet another look at a cancelled TV series. This time, we’ll be examining a more recent casualty of low ratings and poor promotion, 2007-2008′s Aliens in America. It’s a time-tested fish-out-of-water tale with a much more topical spin: namely, the paranoia that surrounds American’s perceptions of Muslims in the post-911 world. It sounds like a real drag, right? Well, the show looks at this hot-button issue from the slightly odd perspective of a single-camera sitcom. It seems like such a difficult issue wouldn’t really be ripe for laughs, but surprisingly, the show is damn funny.
The story revolves around the Tolchuck family, a typical midwestern family in small town Wisconsin, who decide to get an exchange student who they think is from London. Well, get ready…he’s not! He’s actually Raja Musharaff, a Pakistani boy. The show then goes on to explore the ignorance of Americans to Muslim culture, and the stereotypes which have emerged since 9-11. It also explores the relationship between Raja and Justin, his unpopular host-brother, who feels like an alien in his own right. Predictably, due to their outsider status, the two become close friends.
The show is not exactly groundbreaking on the sitcom front, but it’s funny, well-written, and occasionally thought-provoking. However, one of the things I liked about it is that the culture differences and American ignorance aren’t all the show focuses on, and it takes time to examine how much high school sucks for anyone, foreign or not. Sometimes, Raja takes a backseat to action that focuses on Justin or other members of the Tolchuck family. There is a strong family dynamic in the Tolchucks, who are all very likable even when they say very stupid things. The only one that’s not as likable for me is Claire, Justin’s sister, who never really moves much past her role as status-obsessed harpie, though even she has her moments.
Even outside the Tolchuck clan, the world of the show is populated with some very funny supporting characters. There’s Mr. Matthews, the high school principal/local car salesman, who often tries using his salesman tactics in his role as authority figure. There’s also Justin’s friends Dooley and Brad, who may be more of hopeless dorks than Justin himself. Then there’s the Palladino brothers, two dim-witted bullies who end up doing more harm to themselves than others. Here’s a quick clip that nicely showcases their idiocy and ignorance:
And so on and so forth. Each episode follows a similar pattern: Justin does something to piss somebody off, then through mounting ridiculousness manages to make it alright in the end. There are also plenty of B stories involving the other family members, in typical sitcom fashion. But a familiar technique isn’t so bad when it’s done well, and Aliens is done quite well. Some of the humor is surprisingly risque for a show on the CW network, who have never exactly been known for their envelope-pushing. For example, one episode includes a really dumb B-story in which Franny (aka mama Tolchuck) gets a gift bag from a bachelorette party containing a vibrator, and then becomes engaged in a battle of wills with Claire when she finds it, telling her “it’s my new potato masher from Williams-Sonoma.” It continues to escalate, neither one wanting to back down, until Claire buys one of her own to give to a retiring teacher, hoping that Franny will back down. It’s not exactly a plot you can get a lot of mileage out of, and it’s probably one of the weaker B-stories in the show. However, some of the bawdy humor is right on the mark, such as the following:
Justin and Raja walking up to a group of cheerleaders, Justin says to Raja, “I feel like I’m in a tampon commercial.” Then, Justin’s voice-over comes on and tells us, “for those who don’t know, tampon commercials are awesome.”
Or how about this one: Justin and his buddies are discussing what Justin could do with Anita, a popular girl with whom he and Raja are doing a science project. They postulate that Justin could give Anita a “Roman helmet,” to which Raja protests, “So, draping your genitals across someone’s forehead is not degrading?” “Not when two people love each other!” Dooley rebuttles. It captures perfectly the mindset of sex-crazed virgin nerds (trust me, I was one of them in high school too).
If I have one complaint with the show, it’s that it sometimes furthers a stereotype of midwesterners and ignorant, racist, hopelessly out-of-step people, which is such an easy stereotype to fall back on. Being from the midwest, I get slightly offended by this generalization. While I’m not denying that there are some of those people around here (quite a few, unfortunately), there are just as many smart, well-educated, forward-thinking individuals such as myself. Also, I haven’t spent much time in small-town Wisconsin, but do they really sound so much like they’re from Minnesota? Any Wisconsinites that read this, please clue me in. I know they say “bubbler” for drinking fountain though, buncha weirdos.
So what was it that sank Aliens in America after all? Well, like everything else, it was ratings. It failed to find an audience in its Monday time slot, and was then moved to Sunday nights, where it also failed to find an audience. They managed to film most of their episodes before the infamous writer’s strike (a reason for the cancellation of more than one show), so it probably didn’t effect them that much, as compared to other shows. So, it enters the canon of critically praised but viewer-ignored shows, which is a real shame. Honestly though, I’m not sure how long the show would’ve gone on anyway, or how they would’ve continued it after Raja’s time in the U.S. was over. It would’ve been interesting to see how they handled that, though.
Luckily, most of the cast’s careers have continued since it’s cancellation, for better or for worse. Adhir Kalyan, who played Raja, has gone on to appear in films such as Youth in Revolt, Paul Blart: Mall Cop (unfortunately), and the TV show Nip/Tuck. Dan Byrd, who played Justin, has a role on the most likely soon-to-be-canned subject Cougar Town. Lindsey Shaw, aka Claire, is on the TV version of 10 Things I Hate About You. Amy Pietz, who played Frannie, has appeared on some random things since the cancellation, including The Office and Nip/Tuck. And, last but not least, Scott Patterson, who played the Tolchuck patriarch Gary, has appeared in the last three Saw movies (unfortunately? You be the judge).
So, should it be back on the air? definitely. It’s a funny, often touching,well-made show with a likable cast of characters, what more could you want? I’m sure the idea of watching a show that makes light of cultural tensions that still rage all over the country might not be the most alluring for some people, but if we can’t laugh about it, I don’t think we’ll ever be okay to move forward. Unfortunately, the show is currently not available on DVD, which leaves low-quality copies online the only option, but I urge you to seek it out.
Finally, we’ll leave you with a clip that I enjoy, mainly because I don’t like RENT, and I find it hilarious how intentionally bad Byrd is playing the part here:
Come back next time, when I’ll be watching another alien-related show, this time of the extraterrestrial varitey: ABC’s Invasion! Is this early attempt at a replacement for LOST good enough to stand on its own? We’ll find out.