Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goodbye, Aliens in America

After a strike-shortened development season where many networks were forced to just put really brief teasers of their pilots up, sans footage (since their pilots hadn't even been fully cast, much less shot), pretty much every show that showed any promise from last season was picked up, barring Journeyman and (sigh) Moonlight. Some stuff was canceled, but the world is not weeping for Big Shots or Cane, I don't think. Beyond that, if you were a fan of a marginally rated critical hit, you were in luck. Chuck? Pushing Daisies? Dirty Sexy Money? REAPER? All renewed.

So it was a pretty good year for renewals. Well, it was if you weren't deeply enamored of the sweet-tempered and wholly Midwestern treat Aliens in America, one of the best teen sitcoms ever and the latest in a long string of unappreciated teen shows that don't find their audience until DVD. (I wrote about the show and did a more proper review earlier in the season here.)

Obviously, being in the company of Square Pegs (newly out on DVD and kinda disappointing, if Alan Sepinwall is to be believed), My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks is a good place to be, and I think that while Aliens isn't quite up to the level of the latter two, it will certainly be regarded warmly as a sweeter cousin to all three (if not an outright male-centric remake of Square Pegs with a small-town show wrapped in there as well). It's hard to explain what, precisely, Aliens in America did so well -- it's just another show about geeky teenagers, at its base level, and audiences have always firmly rejected those -- but, like all great shows, it's about that subject matter in an incredibly specific WAY.

I think what I like best about the show is how it nails the Midwest so perfectly. There are very few small towns on TV that feel at all like the small town I grew up in, but Medora, Wisconsin, comes close. The range of people who attend Justin Tolchuk's high school are pleasingly accurate, and the humor, gentle as it is, has a pungent undertone that keeps the show from getting too wistful. Aliens in America wraps up every episode with a moral of some sort, but on the way there, it remembers that being a teenager hurts, and it hurts in a different way for everyone who does so. Justin is ostracized at his school and has to deal with having a best friend that is shockingly different to everyone in his town, but the popular Claire has to deal with an incredibly testy relationship with her mother that threatens to break at any point.

Aliens didn't arrive fully formed like MSCL or Freaks and Geeks, and it spent its first handful of episodes nailing down its characters, particularly the parents (the part of Justin's dad was recast after the original pilot, which meant that the jock-like Scott Patterson spent a few episodes playing a nerd before the writers realized he made more sense as a Midwestern macho man -- perhaps a cliche, but it worked better than watching him strain). The premise also tried too hard to exploit the culture clash at the center of the show (the Tolchuks take in a Pakistani exchange student named Raja) before realizing that just writing Raja as another member of the family would work much better than forcing lots of jokes about Midwesterners hating Muslims (one of the few times the show didn't nail its milieu).

One of the other things that was most impressive about the show was how honest it was about religion -- how big of a part it plays in American society but just how little of a part it plays in Americans' private lives fairly often. Raja, as a devout Muslim, is often surprised by how little the U.S. lives up to its self-professed status as a Christian nation (and how often xenophobia is hidden behind a cross), and some of the show's best episodes confronted directly some of these hypocrisies, particularly the Christmas episode, which leveled amusing satire at megachurches even as it showed the place they play in society.

The show was remarkably fair to Raja and his faith as well. Raja was a great character, an open-hearted and eager young man who was just thrilled to be a part of American society but refused to compromise himself or his beliefs in any way to better assimilate. Aliens occasionally got a little too cute with its idea that we're all outsiders in modern society, but Raja was an outsider in ways that extended beyond his nationality and religion -- his desire to just do good work and enjoy life put him at odds with most everyone at Medora High.

As good as the whole cast was, Dan Byrd deserves special mention as the central character, whose limbs often seemed as if they were all attached to different bodies. There have been a lot of great awkward teen performances on TV, but Byrd's is one of the best, as much a work of physical deftness as a work of the writers putting the character into weird situations.

Aliens certainly wasn't perfect -- the show relied too much on Justin's voiceover, and some elements of the show's premise eventually receded into the background -- but it was the sort of show that was on its WAY to becoming something very special, and there were episodes in the show's run that I would stack up against any other comedy from the last year. I don't blame The CW for canceling it (I'm pretty sure I was the only person in America watching the finale), but I am sort of sad that there isn't room on television for something this warm and open. Here's hoping everyone involved goes on to do great things.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Todd, for your post. You were not the only one in America (nor the Midwest for that matter) watching the AiA finale [see TWoP forums]. I will miss this show and the way they spot-on characterized high school, xenophobia and religion. It's rare that a show is so forthright without being either too offensive or PC. Goodbye, sweet show...

Myles said...

It's on my list of shows I will have to catch up on eventually - just something about the show once we got to episode 7 or so just wasn't sitting well with me, and it just got cut out of my rotation without much intent or purpose.

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