Franny Tolchuck, the mother on the new sitcom Aliens in America (The CW, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. ET), wears a hairstyle persnickety enough to invite comparison with the lacquered ‘do of Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van De Kamp and the overeager flip of Malcolm in the Middle’s Lois. Coiffure is destiny on TV comedies, and at a glance you know that Franny will be farcically fussy and perfectly white-bread and that her teenage son Justin, with his center-parted mop of colorless waves, won’t be shedding the bonds of momma’s-boy dorkhood anytime this season.
Justin attends a Wisconsin high school where he can only be considered popular as an object of abuse—a beloved target in phys ed dodgeball matches, for instance. There’s nothing overtly freaky or geeky about him. He’s simply uncool, which makes it easy for us to project our own feelings of alienation onto him. When we meet the kid, it’s the beginning of his junior year, and his sense of gleeful liberation at having just gotten his braces off dissolves when he learns that the senior boys have listed him on their roster of the “ten most bangable” girls in school.
Further damnation arrives on Justin’s doorstep in the form of Raja Musharaff, whose hair appears neat and black from underneath his kufi. Franny, in a plot to import a buddy for her friendless son, signs up to host a foreign exchange student, visions of strapping Scandinavian lads dancing through her head. She instead gets to the airport and finds herself greeted by a Pakistani Muslim, and her eyes go beady with narrow-minded disappointment. Thus, Aliens in America promises that post-9/11 hijinx will ensue.
Because the show is sidling up to its premise very gently, it looks more like a sweet-natured high-school comedy than the risky riff on tolerance it teases us with. True, the pilot features an acute scene in which a teacher initiates a classroom discussion on “cultural differences” that lampoons American parochialism at its finest: “Raja, you are so different from us. How does that feel?” But next week’s episode finds Raja looking like a generic Other, as they might say on campus. Aliens prefers jokes about life on the lower rungs of the adolescent social ladder to ethnic-profiling gags or bits about religion—unless you count the moment when Justin’s dad, in a Homer Simpson swoon of porcophilia, is psyched to discover that he doesn’t have to share his bacon at breakfast.
For a friskier take on Muslim life in the middle of this continent, check out the Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie. (Its second season begins this Wednesday on CBC, which apparently isn’t too particular about YouTubers picking up its shows.) Mind you, I said friskier, not edgier: Though set in a fictional Saskatchewan town called Mercy—where a classically bumbling Lebanese-born contractor and his classically ditzy Anglo wife are the leading members of the Muslim community—Little Mosque is so cozy and hokey that it feels as if its action unfolds on the Saskatchewan equivalent of Sesame Street.
The local right-wing radio host, supposedly a demagogic hate-monger, is no more threatening than Oscar the Grouch. Though most episodes concern philosophical arguments within the mosque’s congregation, these disputes—between progressive and moderate Islam, between feminism and traditionalism—unfailingly play out as cutesy squabbles dramatized with literal bouts of tug-of-war. Come Ramadan, the studly young imam is prone to breathe lines like, “Y’know, when I was a kid, my parents never fasted. They’re huge.” Little Mosque on the Prairie proves fascinating precisely because of its corniness, the way it translates “cultural differences” into the language of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.