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Saturday, September 22, 2007

New American Sitcom Portrays a Muslim as the Soul of the Program

There's a new sitcom coming to American television October 1st. Read about the reactions at the screenings below and be sure to watch to see what you think. One review I read said that it is a unique show because it portrays a Muslim as the "soul" of the program. Considering most of our MSM here in the States does NOT portray Muslims in that light, this in itself is a PROMISING reason to stay tuned. There's even an official forum (no discussion is there YET) at

On the other hand, discussion going on here is NOT favorable to the show. It seems that ANY time a Muslim (in this case a foreign/Pakistani) is portrayed on American television there is GOING to be a reaction. That old adage you can't please EVERYONE comes to mind. But it just goes to show how FEW Muslims have been portrayed in our entertainment industry to begin with-unless of course you take the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as terrorists.

On that note, "The Kingdom" is all the buzz now also which I intend to see but am fully prepared for yet another typical "bad Arabs" movie from all I have read. Extremely TIRESOME and cliche.

My suggestion is just to watch"Aliens in America" for yourselves and see what YOU think. And keep in mind, it IS a comedy and I think someone said once "laughter is the best medicine" or something along those lines if I remember correctly. I do have a friend who attended the screening in LA at the Islamic Center and she relayed to me that the audience reception was by far mostly positive. Bottom line is there are going to be reactions that run the gamut for sure.

'Aliens in America' goes under the microscope at a Chicago high school

Do teenage Muslim boys ogle hot girls, or is that against the boys’ religion? How important is a prayer rug in a Muslim person’sdaily life? Are some small-town Midwesterners racist when it comes to interacting with Muslims, or are they just afraid?

Those issues and many more were the topics of lively debate at Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory High School on the morning of Sept. 11, but this wasn’t part of a discussion of the events of six years ago.

The studio behind the topical CW television comedy “Aliens in America,” which premieres Oct. 1 on WGN-Ch. 9, brought the first episode of the show to the school as part of a promotional tour that has visited the Islamic Center of Southern California and will arrive at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, in a couple of weeks.

Aliens1 The show is not your typically brainless network sitcom. It’s a topical, sharp comedy about a Pakistani Muslim exchange student who arrives in Medora, Wis., to live with the Tolchucks, a family that is less than thrilled with his arrival — at first. “Aliens” mines the pained and sometimes ignorant reactions of the Tolchucks and of the Medora locals to the teen.

Yet “Aliens” is also the poignant story of two outcasts — a Pakistani named Raja Musharraf and the nerdy American student Justin Tolchuck — who bond over what they have in common: They both feel like aliens within the universe of their high school.

Because the subject matter is so tricky, and because the show is on the lower-visibility CW network, the studio behind the show, CBS Paramount Network Television, has scheduled various promotional screenings, including the one at the Islamic Center of Southern California. The reaction there was “overwhelmingly positive,” said Amy Pietz, who plays Franny Tolchuck, the mother on the show, and who led the postscreening discussions at Northside.

As executive producer David Guarascio told Variety: “They were excited to have a show that was a comedy and where the Muslim character wasn’t a terrorist.”

“Word-of-mouth is a key element of our marketing campaign,” said Lauri Metrose, vice president of communications for CBS Paramount Network Television. “We have a lot of faith that audiences will embrace ‘Aliens in America’ because it’s smart, funny, timely and relatable. Hosting screenings and discussions at various high schools, colleges and universities … are all unconventional ways we hope to garner attention for the show.”

The well-made, provocative comedy mixes the wistfulness of “The Wonder Years” with the prickly outsider humor of the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” and as one perceptive Northside student noted, it also has elements of “Freaks and Geeks,” the cult show created by mega-successful filmmaker Judd Apatow eight years ago.

Certainly Justin Tolchuck (Dan Byrd) would fit right in with the “Freaks” cast, and he’s also among the most winning of the many nerdy characters on new fall shows.

“I think any teenager’s lowest point comes when his mother imports a friend for him,” he deadpans in one of his dry voice-overs.

The shy, courteous Raja is not the typically crass sitcom teen either, and he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms at Justin’s high school. On Raja’s first day, another student thinks it’s hilarious to compare him to the convenience-store owner on “The Simpsons.”

“Apu, where’s my slushie?” Raja hears as he walks the halls of the high school.

Aliens2 The Tolchuck parents can barely disguise their discomfort at Raja’s presence (they had “ordered” an exchange student from London, the mystified father explains to Raja).

And though her son Justin quickly bonds with Raja as a fellow outcast, Franny Tolchuck (Pietz’s character) wonders whether he might be just posing as a student — what if he’s really a terrorist? When her husband says their town is the unlikely target, she hisses, “Oh, so now Medora’s not important enough to blow up? Where’s your civic pride?”

Later, Franny flips out when she finds Justin alongside Raja as the latter does one of his five daily prayers. Soon she’s on the phone with a travel agent, booking Raja a plane ticket “from Chippewa Falls to Islamabad.”

The program was played three times for various groups of Northside students, and afterward there were discussions led by Pietz. The Sept. 11 date of the screenings was actually a coincidence, but as it happens, Muslim-American relations is one of the central themes of “Aliens.”

There are no harsher critics than high schoolers, but the reception from the students at Northside College Prep, a selective-enrollment school with 1,112 students and an ethnically diverse student body, was largely positive. They generally seemed to think that the depiction of high school was reasonably accurate, if exaggerated a little for comic effect, and the Muslim students in the audiences approved of the portrayal of Raja.

Students of all ethnicities thought the show was funny, and they laughed throughout the screenings. But, as one student noted, “it takes a lot of guts” to make a comedy that mines such tricky territory.

Some of the students did think that one scene in particular, in which a teacher leads a myopic, insensitive “discussion” of Raja’s heritage, was too harsh.

“Our school is definitely not like that,” a student noted.

“I feel a lot of tension in the world in the last few years,” Pietz said later, in response to another student who said she liked the show but found some scenes “a little uncomfortable.”

“I fought really hard to be a part of this story because it’s a pressure release valve,” Pietz added. “I feel like we’re going to be able to laugh at some of our misunderstandings about each others’ cultures.”

As Northside’s principal, Barry Rodgers, said in an interview before the screenings, “Humor cuts through so much. It appeals to people’s human instincts.”

Aliens3 The Muslim students in the audience, however, did have a couple of “notes,” as studio executives might say. Raja is shown as an enthusiastic cleaner, something that is played for mild laughs on the show. “[My father] had never seen a teenager clean before, and he was impressed,” notes Justin.

A student in the audience who said she was a Muslim of Pakistani descent said that though deference to elders and helping around the house were definite traits of her culture, a boy would be more likely to do outdoor work.

As for Raja’s ogling of Justin’s attractive younger sister, Claire (Lindsay Shaw), a Muslim Northside student said he didn’t think that scene necessarily objectified Claire. In any case, Pietz said an upcoming episode would be devoted to Raja’s interactions with Claire.

Regarding the prayer rug, Pietz said the item prompted a raging debate among the “Aliens” writers and actors. In an upcoming episode, she explained to the students, Franny sells a bunch of household items on Craigslist. Among them is Raja’s prayer rug, which she unthinkingly sticks in the “sell” pile.

Aliens4 Just how big a deal would that be? Pietz wanted to know. A Muslim student said “there are usually a lot” of prayer rugs in the home of an observant follower of Islam, though the rugs are valued objects.

Pietz said later that two versions of the scene were filmed, and that the student’s feedback might help the show’s creators pick the one that would air.

“We are so concerned about being accurate,” Pietz said in an interview after the screenings. The show does have a Muslim writer on staff, but, as she noted, “Aliens” isn’t the typical hot mom-chunky dad sitcom, a comedy standby that doesn’t exactly require an on-staff expert.

At Northside, the promotional strategy seemed to work. Several students said they’d watch the comedy and maybe even tell their friends to check it out.

“I really liked it. It portrayed what isn’t really shown. It also shows how point of views change if you’re open,” said Qadija Qadri, a 15-year-old sophomore.

Sarah Hanif, a 16-year-old Muslim student who was born in the United Arab Emirates, nodded enthusiastically when asked if the show might help change people’s attitudes. “Especially because it shows both sides, both views,” she said.

Aliens5 Rhianna Jones, a 17-year-old senior, said in an interview after the screening that she was surprisingly affected by the show, which features Mrs. Tolchuck having a serious change of heart about Raja toward the end of the pilot.

“I wasn’t excited to see it at all, but it turned out to be very moving,” Jones said. It’s even better that the show is aimed at young people because “their opinions are not set,” she added.

As the marathon of debates and discussions drew to a close, a 15-year-old sophomore named Carlos Lopez had a final question for Pietz.

“Are there going to be any Hispanics on the show?” he asked.



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