The premise of Aliens in America made me more than a little bit wary. Justin Tolchok (Dan Byrd) is a perennially unpopular student at his high school in Medora, WI. He’s a slight, kinda nerdy, but mostly just vanilla kid, not too smart or ambitious or anything. This doesn’t sit well with mom Franny (Amy Pietz), who remembers being fabulously popular when she was in high school. As Justin informs us, “Mom quit being head of the PTA to concentrate on normalizing me.”
Her best efforts aren’t working, so the school guidance counselor, Mr. Matthews (Christopher B. Duncan), suggests the family host a foreign exchange student. This, Mr. Matthews asserts, is a “guaranteed friend” for Justin. Pinning her hopes on a tall, blonde, Scandinavian tennis star (or some fantasy very like that), Franny is horrified when they meet their foreigner at the airport only to find he’s brown, Pakistani, Muslim, and clad in a salwar kameez and kufi.
While I expected the obvious jihadist jokes and Muslim stereotypes, the good news is that Aliens in America doesn’t just fall into such jingoistic scapegoating. Instead, it shows and complicates the process. Franny worries “about the terrorist question,” saying she believes “they pose as students [because] Bill O’Reilly said so.” One teacher introduces Raja (Adhir Kalyan) as a “real live Pakistani, who practices Muslimism,” and a student opines, “I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York.” Such preconceptions are the target of Aliens’ humor. It’s clear that Raja fully expects such prejudice, and he weathers the barbs with patience and grace.
Aliens in America extends its comedy to skewer dominant American mores, social hierarchies, and suburban tics and eccentricities. Like its great teen dramedy precursors—Heathers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—Aliens takes high school as a microcosm of American culture. Just so, Justin is targeted by high school bullies who make the usual fag jokes, and the popular jock boys circulate a start of classes list naming the “10 Most Bangable Chicks.” Justin makes the list at number eight.
As Justin’s friendship with Raja develops, the top boys cannot even begin to fathom why he’d befriend “the foreigner.” The only way they can make sense of it and express their outrage as such border crossing is to retreat into homophobia. They deem Raja a “fudge Pakistani,” and regularly call out Justin in similar gay-bashing terms.
Cultural differences only deepen the in-crowd’s phobia. In the boys’ showers, that Thunderdome of straight boy training, Justin is horrified at Raja’s comfort with casual nudity. As Raja stands directly in front of Justin, to ask why he seems to be pulling away from their friendship, the other boys have their suspicions seemingly confirmed. Justin acknowledges that perhaps in Pakistan, men are more comfortable with their own and other men’s nudity. Nonetheless, in America and the high school locker room in particular, only “fags” could possibly be so comfortable and casual in close proximity to another guy’s johnson.
In this regard, Aliens in America identifies and critiques U.S. disciplining of differences of all sorts, despite the usual trumpeting of a dedication to “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” In the opening sequence of the premiere episode, Justin wonders what would happen if an alien landed in his hometown. Imagining the alien at his high school, Justin sees him picked on for his “big head” and “bug eyes.” The newcomer would be ridiculed, unpopular, and “definitely a virgin.”
Justin is just such an alien, and he fully recognizes his status. The best he can hope for is to keep his head down and just make it out of high school with a little bit of dignity intact. Raja disrupts all that. Suddenly Justin is hyper-visible, and riddled with anxiety because of it. But Raja also affords Justin the opportunity to see that another world is possible, that other values and experiences can be found outside of his lifelong efforts to conform. Suddenly being an alien isn’t so bad.