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Decent Sitcom Content: An “Alien” Concept?

By Adam Shuler


To paraphrase a famous Shakespearean quote, some shows are born filthy, and others have filthiness thrust upon them. While many primetime shows occupy the former category, the CW’s Aliens in America typifies the latter. A series that could be focused on cultural understanding and the true meaning of friendship is undercut by tawdry and crude sexual humor.


Aliens in America is the only new network sitcom this season (and only one of two currently on the prime-time landscape) to center on teenage characters. It airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. ET (7:30 CT/MT) following Everybody Hates Chris, the other prime-time sitcom in which teens are the main characters. Chris is consistently one of the better shows on television, a show that highlights positive themes without using lewd humor. The fact that Aliens follows Chris (in the Family Hour, no less) demonstrates that the potential for a solid, positive programming block is being wasted.


The main character in Aliens is Justin Tolchuk, a high-school junior who is perceptive, yet socially awkward. His younger sister Claire has just started school as a freshman, and already her looks and personality are winning her popular friends. Justin’s dad Gary is a thrifty but supportive figure, and Justin’s mother Franny runs a tight ship in the household. In an effort to give Justin some friends, Franny arranges for the family to host a foreign-exchange student. But the family is not prepared for the student who arrives: Raja Musharaff, a 16-year-old from Pakistan. Justin and Raja’s cultures are vastly different, yet the two find themselves in similar social situations. They stick together and form a strong friendship.


Given the show’s premise, the series should ideally be focused on self-confidence and cultural understanding. Raja an “alien” because he is a Pakistani trying to adapt to life in the United States; but Justin is an “alien” as well, due to his social inadequacy in an environment that demands strong social skills. Raja’s perspective helps the American students see their customs in a different way, perhaps realizing how foolish some of them are. Justin develops strong self-confidence and becomes more adept at surviving the tricky social traps that high school brings. To be fair, these themes are sometimes presented in the series, though they are not highlighted as often as they could be. 


The injection of brazenly lewd humor is the program’s biggest flaw. The first indicator of the series’ raunchy humor occurred mere minutes into the show’s pilot, which originally aired October 1st. On the first day of school, two twins have noticed that Claire’s breasts have developed over the summer. They approach Justin and cannot comprehend why he is indifferent to Claire’s attributes.


Paladino Twin: “You don’t love those? What are you, gay?”

Justin: “No, I’m not gay.”

Paladino Twin: “Are you on that?”

Justin: “My sister?”

Paladino Twin: “Oh you gotta get on that!”

Paladino Twin: “Man if she was our sister, I’d be up in her room every night!”


One should have sensed trouble hearing an incest joke before the premiere episode’s first commercial break.


The raunch continued in the October 8th episode, “No Man is an Island.” In class, Raja has stated that if he could bring one thing to a desert island, it would be Justin. While this was clearly a statement of the strong friendship he has with Justin, the high school students interpret it as a homosexual remark. In the hallway, two boys get Justin and Raja’s attention, and simulate homosexual sex as a way of making fun of them. The students’ behavior is, ironically, more openly homosexual than Raja’s remark. The gesture is obvious, obnoxious and pointless. Later, when the two are in a locker room, more gratuitous dialogue on the subject occurs.


Student: “You’re gonna bone!”

Justin: “We’re not gonna bone!”
Raja: “We are not homosexuals. If we were, would Justin pretend that his pillow was Amy Greenblatt and French kiss with it each and every night, groping and grinding? Does that sound like the behavior of a gay man?”


This dialogue may not have been as lewd as the aforementioned sexual gesture, but it was not necessary. Surely there were less explicit ways to show Raja’s justification of Justin’s heterosexuality.


The October 22nd episode, “The Metamorphosis,” focused on a popular girl named Anita, who was once Justin’s childhood sweetheart. Because Raja truly respects her for her mind and personality and not simply her body, she transforms from a snobby, popular girl to a studious, respectful one. Her growing friendship with Raja and Justin gives Justin hope that he will have sex with her, a notion he shares with his friends.


Dooley: “She’s probably done everything, man. Missionary, Feeding the Eagle, Hangman’s    Notch. Maybe you’ll give Anita a Roman Helmet!”

Brad: “You’re totally going to make love, Justin!”

Dooley: “Oh hail, mighty Caesar!”

Raja: “A Roman Helmet. I am so glad to see that you’re respecting Anita, Justin.”

Justin: “It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

Raja: “Oh, so draping your genitals across somebody’s forehead is not degrading?”

Dooley: “Not if two people love each other.”


It is bad enough that Justin is thinking about having sex with a girl who has befriended him because she feels respected for her thoughts and ideas. Adding sexually-charged dialogue only makes things worse, adding no entertainment value whatsoever.


The trend of spicing up scripts with useless, smutty humor continued throughout the season. The November 19th episode, “My Musky, Myself,” highlighted the high school cheerleaders’ request for new uniforms. The uniforms included short halter tops, fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots. Such outfits would be rejected outright for officially-sanctioned use in public schools -- an idea seemingly confirmed by the principal, Mr. Matthews, who comments that the cheerleaders look like strippers. However, despite Mr. Matthews’ demand for “family entertainment,” he allows the girls to have their outfits (showing particular interest in the teenage girls’ fishnet stockings). The cheerleaders perform sexually-suggestive dances in their revealing ensembles.


It is easy to forget the more positive elements of Aliens in America when these pointless scenes are embedded into the story. Do the producers hope to appeal to audiences desiring edgy fare? Do they feel that needless filth is somehow going to salvage the series in the eyes of the viewing public? What makes this truly appalling is the fact that Aliens in America on the whole is not a trashy show.  Outrageous sexual humor is injected into stories that otherwise have the potential to be positive. The theme of deep friendship is undercut by homosexual innuendo. An attractive girl’s company cannot be enjoyed without sex as an ulterior motive. These instances, and more, are sadly commonplace on the new series.


What’s perhaps even more maddening is the fact that, despite the consistent patterns listed above, some episodes have proven that a story can be told and be entertaining without hijacking it with smut. The October 29th episode, “Help Wanted,” centers on a convenience store where Raja works. The location doubles as a hangout for cool teens; but when Raja is left in charge, he refuses to sell them alcohol, and the teens leave the store and go somewhere else. Justin is angry at first because he was trying to eke his way into the cool crowd, but eventually he comes to respect Raja for sticking to his principles. This story was told without crude humor, and was no less entertaining. Why can’t each episode function in this fashion?


Perhaps audiences sense that the tone of Aliens in America just isn’t right. Despite being one of the CW’s most heavily-promoted series, it is also one of the network’s lowest-rated. Notably, Aliens in America consistently loses viewers from its lead-in, Everybody Hates Chris. Is it a coincidence that a teen/family sitcom with clean content and positive themes enjoys a higher viewership than a teen/family sitcom that sabotages its positive themes with coarse humor?


Aliens in America uses as its theme song Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Considering that the series consistently highlights inane sex jokes over themes of friendship and kindness, “What’s So Funny?” is indeed an appropriate question.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff: Aubree Bowling, Caroline Schulenburg, Josh Shirlen, and Adam Shuler, under the direction of Dr. John Rattliff.

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