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Truth in Humor

October 2, 2007
Today, (in fact as I type this) “Aliens in America” is debuting on The CW. Much to my surprise, the show is not about aliens such as E.T. & company. It’s about an immigrant. The show takes place in Medora, Wisconsin, and chronicles the Justin Toluchuk’s awkward high school plight, as he tries to navigate his way through the social scene. His family is not much help either, from his well-meaning mom and idealistic dad to his overtly popular sister. Hoping to find a remedy to her son’s social situation, Justin’s mother, Franny, signs the family up for the school’s international exchange student program.

“Picturing an athletic, brilliant Nordic teen, Franny is sure this new friendship will bestow instant coolness on her outsider son. However, when the Tolchuck’s exchange student arrives, he turns out to be Raja Musharaff a 16-year-old Muslim from a small village in Pakistan…While the rest of the family is slightly freaked out by the Muslim in their midst, Gary is comforted by the fact that the host family receives a monthly check to help with expenses.”

Freaked out by the Muslin in their midst? He’s Muslim. Not a charging rhinoceros. The kid is named Raja, though, which is the same name as Jasmine’s pet tiger in “Aladdin.” Something still tells me that the family is not freaked out by the “Aladdin” connection. In fact, it’s very clear that the reason why the family freaked out is solely because of Raja’s religious identity. It’s his skin color. The initial reaction upon the family’s faces when they first see Raja (prior to learning of his faith) is one of utter shock with a surprising lingering sense of disappointment.

What The CW has in its hands is a golden opportunity to explore culture clash in the realm of high school America. It could also present a sobering satirical examination of American fears regarding Muslims. It could chronicle Raja’s Americanization. The worst thing that “Aliens in America” could do is do nothing and just present American fear with little analysis.

This show could even pick up with 2005’s “Crash” left off. Heralded as an essential study of race in America, “Crash” went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture. What “Crash” strove to achieve was indeed admirable, yet flatly presenting the thesis that everyone(regardless of whether we’re honest with ourselves about it) is racist to a degree does not really change much. I mean, racists I know are not going to magically realize the error of their ways after Paul Haggis bangs his argument over their heads. Especially with a screenplay that horrendous.

People respond differently to humor, though. There is something more appealing about being told that you are doing something wrong in funny manner. So who knows: “Aliens in America” really does have the potential to do something great. As to whether or not the writers will pursue this opportunity to the degree they should…that’s a different story. The worst thing that could happen would be if Raja ends up being a token plot device who exercises his Muslim traditions as a means to generate tired, empty jokes.

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