Sad and lonely

Aliens in America’s bracing look at high-school misery
By ADAM REILLY  |  October 16, 2007

VIDEO: A preview of Aliens in America

Not all varieties of teen angst are created equal. There is, on the one hand, the type depicted in The O.C., wherein fine-boned, old-souled adolescents grapple with grown-up problems (relationships gone bad, chemical use and abuse, that sort of thing). But there’s also the searing agony of the true misfit — a torment so brutal that those who experience it (the hormonally challenged, the acne-scared, the painfully awkward, et al.) spend their waking hours wishing that the earth would open and swallow them up. This second type is far less TV-friendly: the protagonists aren’t as easy on the eyes, and their troubles — if honestly rendered — can be unbearable to watch.

Which brings us to Aliens in America (CW, Monday at 8:30 pm). Dismayed by the social misadventures of their maladroit son, Justin (Dan Byrd), a Wisconsin couple sign up to host an exchange student. What they want is a hip young Euroteen who’ll help ease Justin’s misery. What they get is Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a young Pakistani who meets them at the airport in full salwar kameez and is, if anything, a bigger dork than Justin. It’s early yet — as of this writing, the show is just two episodes old — but Aliens looks to be the rare show that documents just how awful life amid high school’s social dregs can be.

This past week we saw Raja and Justin’s English class discussing Robinson Crusoe. When the teacher realized that no one had read the book, he took a different tack, asking students what one thing they’d want to bring if they found themselves exiled to a desert island. After two disheartening replies (“A machine that makes everything” and “Robinson Crusoe by Willem Dafoe”), Raja jumps into the fray: he would, he proudly announces, bring Justin, with whom he’s formed a fast friendship. This is, of course, a disaster, since it gives Justin’s tormenters a new trope. As soon as Raja stops talking, a meathead in the back coughs the operative word (“Homosexual!”); later, as Justin and Raja walk down the hall, two guys pretend to have anal sex. With all respect to the Ryan Atwoods and Marissa Coopers of this world, this is what hellish teendom is really like.

Aliens also does a nice job of capturing adolescence’s ability to taint the adults with whom it comes into contact. Justin’s mom over-identifies with the romantic adventures of Justin’s nubile, shallow sister, Claire (Lindsey Shaw); a well-meaning teacher breaks up a bullying incident in the lunch room and ends up blaming the victim. And — though you wouldn’t necessarily expect it from the CW — there are signs the show is up to addressing the Islam-versus-the-West theme. Consider this snippet of dialogue from Raja’s first day at school:

Teacher: “Raja, you are so different from us. How does that feel?”

Raja: “I am not sure I understand.”

Teacher: “Mm-hmm. Think about it. How does everyone else feel about Raja and his differences? Yes, Stephanie?”

Stephanie: “Well, I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York.”

Teacher: “That’s good!”

Raja: “That is not true!”

Teacher: “Okay, Raja, in America you have to wait until you’re called on — and I’d appreciate a raised hand. So: who else is angry at Raja?”

It’s still not clear whether a sit-com can sustain a thorough anatomization of teen-loserhood, never mind East-West culture clashes, and still maintain an audience. But Aliens in America, with its bracing honesty, is off to a good start.

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  Topics: Television , Willem Dafoe, Dan Byrd
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