`Aliens in America' a worthy heir to `Northern Exposure' mantle'

TV Preview

October 01, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Finally, a TV comedy worth going out of your way to see. And it's on the network some might think least likely to succeed in delivering one: CW.

But not since Northern Exposure's Joel Fleischman found himself stranded in Cicely, Alaska, has there been a fish as swimmingly out of water as Raja Musharaff on the new CW sitcom Aliens in America.

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.

Meet the Tolchucks of Medora, Wis.: Gary (Scott Patterson), Franny (Amy Pietz) and their two teenage children, Claire (Lindsey Shaw) and Justin (Dan Byrd). For a fast sense of Medora, think of the feature film Fargo.

Narrated in voiceover by 16-year-old Justin, the sitcom's premise is quickly and cleverly established: Justin is socially awkward, and his mom is a little overprotective. Fearing that her son is lonely, Franny hits upon the idea of bringing an international exchange student into the home so that Justin "will have a friend."

But instead of one of the blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked English teens that adorn the guidance counselor's brochures for the exchange program, the Tolchucks find themselves with Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Muslim from a tiny village in Pakistan.

At first, Franny is all for "sending him back." But Gary, thinking of the $500 a month the family receives for housing Raja, resists.

"What about the terrorist question?" Franny hisses at her husband in a whisper so that their guest won't hear. "They pose as students, you know. Bill O'Reilly says so. You should watch more news."

Her husband is speechless.

The first day of class is a disaster. An ignorant teacher asks a classroom full of Medora kids how they feel about Raja "being so different."

One girl replies, "I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York." Her answer is applauded by the teacher.

Raja's initial verdict of his classmates: "They are like wolves - and so ignorant about world events."

But the situation improves as Justin and Raja start to bond - and learn about each other.

Raja gets past the misery of his first day at Medora High by saying a Muslim prayer aloud. When Justin questions the Pakistani teen about it, Raja says, "It gives me strength in difficult times. What do you do in difficult times?"

"I don't pray that much," Justin says sheepishly. "I guess I usually eat a brownie or buy a CD in difficult times."

By the end of the pilot, everyone is getting along, and everything in the Tolchuck household is just hunky-dory, as they say in Wisconsin.

(This is, after all, a sitcom on a network aimed at viewers in their teens and 20s - don't expect too much truth.)

"Dinner that night was one of the best meals ever," Justin says in a voiceover reminiscent of The Wonder Years. "We stayed at the table for hours just talking. ... No one wanted to leave."

The final scene of the family at the table with Raja firmly in their midst might be only a fantasy for most households on the go. But it sure is an inviting one - likely to keep many young viewers who feel a sense of alienation in their own lives coming back for more.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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