We could go in circles for days about who started what, but suffice it to say that between the suicide bombings, the racial profiling, and a catalog of other incidents, things are getting kind of tense between Americans and Muslims.
Ideally, we could jump-start the healing by getting Cat Stevens and Toby Keith to record a heartfelt duet. Failing that, maybe a situation comedy could help clear the air.
“Aliens in America,” the country’s first prime-time sitcom with an observant Muslim character, is the obvious candidate. Premiering Monday night at 8:30 on the CW, “Aliens” is your basic guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner-and-not-having-the-pork-chops farce.
The Americans are the Tolchuks, a vapid clan of small town Wisconsinites who attempt to import a friend for their archetypal dweeb of a son, Justin (Dan Byrd). Enter the alien: Raja (Adhir Kalyan), the Pakistani exchange student who isn’t quite what the brochure led them to expect.
“Aliens” aims to spin the Tolchuks’ panic and Middle American prejudice against Muslims into big laughs. And it succeeds like … well, let’s just say you’ll laugh a lot harder if you change the channel to C-SPAN, hit mute and blow raspberries on your arm every time a senator sits down.
“Aliens’ ” tedium is multifaceted. The cast is playing its C-game, and the script is far too timid to take down what it sets up.
“Praise Allah!” Raja shouts as the Tolchuks pick him up at the airport. If the riff is on America’s paranoia, the scene demands a slapstick tasering. Instead, the Tolchuks just fidget uncomfortably. But shoddy execution aside, “Aliens’ ” underlying comic premise just doesn’t ring true.
Not that bigotry isn’t good material. “All in the Family,” Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, “South Park,” “Family Guy”: Bigotry is rich in comic potential. But for that potential to pay off, the bigotry depicted must jibe with viewers’ experience, whether acknowledged or not.
We are happy to laugh at ourselves — if, that is, we can recognize ourselves.
Everyone who watched “All in the Family” knew a guy just like Archie Bunker. When “Family Guy’s” Stewie assiduously searches a party to make sure it’s safe for him to tell a marginally racist joke, only to have a black guy pop out of a planter as he’s right in the middle of it, who can’t identify with the fear of finding oneself in a careless moment on the wrong side of today’s hair-trigger ethnic and racial sensitivities?
If the average American sitcom viewer had a lot of ambivalent feelings about Muslims, “Aliens” would have more to work with. Culture makers take this latent bigotry for granted and tiptoe across the subject. To avoid inflaming the masses, the Washington Post pulls Opus cartoons that make flippant use of a hijab, and the BBC gingerly replaces the Islamic extremists in its hospital drama “Casualty” with animal rights fanatics. We’ll never know how many sectarian riots these decisions prevented. But it is clear that when a media outlet gets skittish about stoking anti-Muslim prejudice, whatever it does next feels superfluous.
This isn’t a half-bad description of the rest of the “Aliens” pilot either. Raja’s new schoolmates blame him for September 11, and he and Justin roll their shared outsider-hood into an awkwardly over-sentimental bond. By the time the Tolchuks decide not to send him back to Pakistan, the show has given up on funny and has recast itself as a very special episode of “Saved by the Bell.”
Is anti-Muslim prejudice as widespread as is blithely assumed by the cultural elite? With all due caveats for pig-headed public comments and hate crimes, the majority of Americans seem to be pretty clear on the fact that most Muslims don’t work for bin Laden. Comedy that begins from the opposite premise seems forced.
This is good, if not exactly startling, news for America and for Muslims around the world. It is somewhat less good news for the CW’s Monday night lineup.