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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alienated in America

Published: October 5, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

According to Dr. Phil, there are four stages of grief: shock, denial, anger and resolution. While on a superficial level, the CWs new sitcom, Aliens in America, is easy to write off as another half-assed television show trying to capitalize off of topical humor, it may also be a sign that the U.S. has entered the final stage of the grieving process following 9/11.

Aliens in America follows a dysfunctional American family as they try to accept the fact that the foreign exchange student they were expecting is not a blond of Aryan descent, but a Muslim 16-year-old from a small town in Pakistan. The unwitting matriarch of the family suspects he is a terrorist, citing the views of Bill OReilly as evidence.

While Americas lack of knowledge of, and in general, closed mind towards, Muslims existed before 9/11, it is hard to imagine this pilot seeing the light of day prior to those terrorist attacks. If viewers did not have 9/11 as a lens through which to view this sitcom, its jokes would not only be stale (thats another matter), but largely incomprehensible.

As much creative and artistic merit as this show may lack, it does signify a step forward by the entertainment industry, if not the general public, in coming to terms with 9/11 and returning to normalcy, while retaining the lessons taught by 9/11 and its aftermath.

9/11 forced all Americans to confront whatever pre-existing prejudices they may have had against Islamic culture. Prior to the attacks, it was easy for Americans to hear of overseas violence involving Muslims and generalize about those regions of the world, assuming that the violence was a product of that culture along and would stay there.

However following 9/11 and the domestic Muslim backlash that followed, Americans could not easily dismiss these actions as unfathomable, since these hate crimes were committed by their fellow citizens.

Instead it brought to light the irrationality of the prior prejudices and highlighted the inconsistencies inherent in cultural generalizations.

Aliens in America is a product of this awakening. While it does portray Pakistani student, Raja Musharaff, as out of place at a Medora, Wisconsin high school, he stands out as the only rational character on the show, ironically making him even more of an outsider.

The show turns the tables on racial preconceptions portraying the Tolchuck family as the uncouth heathens who need a lesson in civility from Raja.

The patriarch of the family, Gary, is greedy, and yet lazy at the same time. While he is always on the lookout for extra ways to make money, he chooses the methods that involve the least effort on his part, such as trying to turn his son into a model or agreeing to house an exchange student in order to receive the monthly check.

Garys wife, Franny, is the epitome of a mother who could kill you with kindness. She, along with her sons guidance counselor, devises a scheme to host an exchange student as a way to ensure that her son has a friend.

This is of course before she discovers that Raja is Pakistani, prompting her to focus solely on evicting him from her house, ignoring her sons desire for Raja to stay and her daughters request for birth control along the way.

Rajas closest thing to an ally is Justin Tolchuck, a socially inept loner, so looked down upon his own classmates that he is put on a list of the top ten bang-able girls complied by the senior class. However, he finds a sympathetic ear and an open mind in Raja.

All of this is compounded by the ignorance of the first class Raja attends in an American high school. The teacher refers to Islam as Muslimism, and then proceeds to ask the class, How does everyone feel about Raja and his differences? to which one student replies, I guess I feel angry that his people blew up those buildings in New York.

Sure, Aliens in America does not have the best writing and will not be receiving an Emmy nod any time soon, but it does have honesty and the cojones to call Americans out on the national myth that difference is welcomed and universally accepted here.

That is not to say that America is not more open to diversity than other parts of the world, but simply to point out that we still have a long way to go.

Part of the reason that viewers cringe when watching this show is due not only to the lack of tact and worldly savvy the Tolchucks exhibit, but the fact that they are not too far from reality.

Perhaps Aliens in America represents a move in a post-9/11 world towards resolution, an acceptance of what has happened and a feeling that it can be overcome, even if it means identifying the remaining problems through whatever
media outlets available.

While the show advocates change, it also adopts a slightly pessimistic view. In the last scene, Justins sister brings her new boyfriend, who happens to be black, to dinner, much to the dismay of their mother.

With this last scene, the show seems to be saying, Theres always something, or perhaps this is another criticism of America. While Franny has come to view Raja as a young boy, not a terrorist, the look on face betrays her prejudice against her daughters new boyfriend. Perhaps this is meant to criticize America for refusing to learn from its mistakes, like Franny refuses to realize that prejudices do not have realistic applications.

Aliens in America will most likely not be anything more than a blip on the TV programming radar, but it does signify a call to Americans to get off of their cultural high-horse and perhaps realize that they, with their inconsistencies
and flaws, may actually