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Aliens in America: Not (Islama)bad at All

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Kalyan, left, and Dan Byrd. Marcel Williams/ The CW

Tonight, The CW debuts Aliens in America, which I gave a brief plug in the current issue of Time. A lot of advance raves have compared the show with The Wonder Years. I didn’t, perhaps because, apparently unlike every other TV critic in America, I was never that crazy for The Wonder Years.

I know, I know, it was well-acted and sweet and every guy out there has a Winnie Cooper somewhere in his past, blah blah blah. But for me the show’s coming of age stories were always overwhelmed by the “what I learned” voiceovers and boilerplate observations about The Turbulent Sixties. (Compare it with Freaks and Geeks, which rather than loading up its 1980-81 milieu with Square Pegs cliches, recognized that in the Midwest, 1980 was by and large still the mid-’70s.) Also, I was always more of a Paul guy than a Kevin guy.

All that said… when people compare Aliens to Wonder Years, I think they mean to say that it’s a perceptive, good-hearted sitcom with a strong sense of the embarrassments and small victories of high school–and that I agree with. Justin Tolchuck (PaulDan Byrd) is an awkward 16-year-old for whom his helicopter mom (Amy Pietz) decides to import an exchange student as a friend. The family expects a blond English boy; they get Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Muslim Pakistani student brings out the ignorance and political correctness in their neighbors, often at the same time. (His first day in school prompts a teacher to start an awkward discussion about how it made the class “feel” when Raja’s “people” knocked down the Twin Towers.)

Raja’s foreignness is the show’s hook, but Aliens wisely doesn’t make too much out of it. (And Kalyan does a great job of underplaying a role–a kid who’d be the cartoony comic relief on your average sitcom–that many actors would take way over the top.) He passes up the bacon at the breakfast table, endearing himself to Justin’s dad (Scott Patterson), who’s glad to help himself to Raja’s share, but he and Justin become fast friends because Raja is oblivious to the school packing order that has made Paul an untouchable. What really Raja him apart is his earnestness; Raja isn’t a complete innocent, but he doesn’t realize how much his sincerity and his gratitude for what he has sets him apart from suburban American kids. When asked what he would take with him if he were stranded on a desert island, for instance, he says he’d take his dear friend Justin, because he loves him so much–not getting how that might be, ahem, misinterpreted by your average teenage American.

Aliens manages to make an age-old setup fresh: having an outsider reintroduce us to the weirdness of our own culture. Let’s hope Raja never gets assimilated too well.