By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007
Is it racist to make racism funny? Turning bigotry into a joke could be said to have a de-stigmatizing effect on it. But maybe that was all thrashed out decades ago when Archie Bunker proved a therapeutic shock to the American system in Norman Lear's "All in the Family." The trick is in the execution.
Now the CW network treads on the same thorny ground with "Aliens in America," a sitcom about the Tolchuck family of Medora, Wis., which volunteers to take in a foreign exchange student for a year. Family members are aghast to discover, when at the airport to welcome him, that the student is a Muslim from Pakistan.
Their faces don't just fall, they nearly fall off -- especially Mom's, since she was hoping for some kind of Aryan Adonis and is horrified rather than touched when Raja, the young man, shouts, "Thank you, Allah, for the Tolchucks!" We're supposed to laugh at their revulsion, but shouldn't we be more inclined to be revolted by it?
Perhaps they are so broadly drawn that they don't register as real people. But that would make the whole show frivolously unworthy of one's time.
As it happens, the Tolchucks' motives were anything but humanitarian. Dad was delighted at the payment of $500 a month he gets for taking the kid in, mom had some kind of sexual fantasy going, and the 16-year-old son, Justin, who narrates the story, hoped that a popular foreign student would help him become one of the cool guys in high school instead of the social reject he thinks he is.
Unfortunately for comedy's sake, Justin doesn't just narrate the story, he narrates it to death. It's another of those increasingly numerous shows to rely heavily on a first-person soundtrack. This makes exposition easy for the writers and frees them up from constructing actual scenes with dialogue in them. The cumulative effect is too much like radio.
Times being what they are, showing up in a Midwestern high school with a Muslim under your wing is not likely to be a path to popularity, as Justin learns quickly. As it happens, the Muslim student possesses nearly every rare and admirable trait a kid could have: He is upbeat, uncomplaining, cheerful and lovable and even offers to help with housework.
Adhir Kalyan is the picture of boyish charm in the role. Raja is an innocent who naively expects the best from people and has the ability to rebound from repeated inevitable disappointments. As Justin, Dan Byrd proves himself to be in a league with the best young actors, including all those starring in their own sitcoms on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Amy Pietz probably makes the most vital and volatile impression as Franny, mother of Justin and his social-climbing kid sister Claire (Lindsay Shaw). Scott Patterson is adequate as greedy old Dad.
Some sly points are made off the suburban experience and modern mall values. One of Justin and Raja's teachers ignorantly refers to Raja's religion as "Muslinism" and imagines herself open-minded when she is anything but. In the second episode, one of the half-dozing students refers to an American literary classic as "Robinson Crusoe by Willem Dafoe."
Justin observes that his sister is not only bigger and more popular than him, but also "tanner," high on the list of bankable assets, even in Wisconsin.
But 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 -- 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.
Aliens in America (30 minutes) debuts at 8:30 p.m. on Channel 50.