How could an American sitcom about a Pakistani called Raja Musharraf possibly go wrong?
That’s what the executives at the CW thought. Earlier this year, they made the decision to can the excellent Veronica Mars – a critically acclaimed TV show that’s been fighting a ratings slide in its third season and was incidentally my favorite show on TV. This was also the year when many of the CW mainstays, like Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven for example, headed to that big boobtube in the sky. But fear not! The geniuses at CW have a plan and part of it is Aliens in America.
[Before I go any further, I would like to make clear that I have not seen the entire pilot. The opinions expressed here are based on teaser clips put out by the CW… which makes this an anticipatory rant I guess :D]
Debuting this September, Aliens is the story of a 16 year old Pakistani exchange student who lands up in the tiny little town of Medora in Wisconsin. His arrival is a terrible shock to the family of four: hyperactive mother, aspirational dad, loser son and goody two shoes daughter were expecting a Nordic god to come hang out with the son, thus instantly transforming him from dorkster to hipster.
Now, my previous post was about Isaiah Washington, the multicultural Grey’s Anatomy and how it all came together in a broth too hot for Washington to handle. Aliens in America is its complete opposite – unlike GA, this is a show that not only takes racial profiles into consideration, its very premise rests upon stereotypes. It’s a bit unfair to compare these two shows because one is already a monster hit while the other is jinxed by a number of issues right out the starting gate, least of which is the fact that it airs on the CW, a niche network. But I’m going to do it anyway because come the fall, the two will be perched on two vastly different ends of the race spectrum.
So here’s one of the clips released by the CW:
The above is your basic introduction that tells you a few things about the characters – one is that Pakistanis look and act in a certain manner. Raja is a stereotypical Muslim kid from a Third World country, complete with cringe-inducing, ‘funny’ Apu-inspired accent, skull cap, loose clothes and other subtle clues that should instinctively make you think, “Terrorist!”
Second, it tells you what small town America is supposed to be like. From the conversation between the parents and son as well as the voiceover, you understand that the American in his little town doesn’t like “dem darn furriners” especially the brownies. Small town Americans are racist and they’re racist because it’s the social norm. “What about the terrorist question?” whispers the jittery , Bill O’Reilly believing mother.
Damn, dude! She’s not just a racist but she’s also a Fox News viewer! Medora, Wisconsin, might be small in size but it’s obviously big on bigotry.
You know, at this point, I’m at somewhat of a loss as to where to begin. There are so many things about this series that bothers me that I just don’t know which to bring up first. So let me start at a position unfamiliar to me – by believing the best possible construction I can put upon Aliens in America.
At best, Aliens is an exploration of the effects of stereotyping. This is about as harmless and time-honored a direction as you can take when telling a story. So this series tells you that all the Muslims who dress funny and talk funny (‘funny’ as in ‘peculiar’ not ‘ha ha’) aren’t necessarily up to funny business. Some of them are just genuinely happy to be there and just want an opportunity to get ahead like the rest of us.
In this scenario, all the things wrong with the series was consciously chosen for its inaccuracy – such as the name ‘Raja’, which is far more common in India than Pakistan; the fact that Raja’s class identity, which is a huge deal in South Asia, is remarkably confused if one goes by his mode of dressing and his participation in an exchange program (seriously? A high school in Wisconsin is going to do an exchange program with a madrassa in rural Pakistan? Right!).
The problem with the above explanation is that it paints the writer (or in this case, writers but I’ll come to that in a bit) into a corner. They have to then not only demolish the stereotype but also come up with a plausible explanation for its existence. It would have been one thing for the Americans to believe these things about ‘Raja’ and then find out that he’s actually none of those things – like most Pakistani kids in his position wouldn’t be in real life – but as per the information available on the net right now (primarily the CW, IMDB and Wikipedia) it is fairly certain that Raja is really, actually all the things demanded by the stereotype.
So much as I would like to give the people behind Aliens the benefit of the doubt, the charitable explanation just doesn’t work for me.
Then what is the less charitable and, in my view, far more likely explanation? I vote for laziness mixed with an unhealthy dose of obliviousness.
I can’t imagine that any network would actively throw its weight behind a giant Fuck You to not just an entire country, the one incidentally that President Bush has repeatedly called a valued ally in the War on Terror (man, that phrase just gets more and more hackneyed with each passing day!), but also that significant portion of the United States called Middle America of which Wisconsin is a card carrying member. Hollywood might not be “real America” but the CW is still a network that desperately needs to attract viewers from “real America” to stay afloat.
Also, Aliens is written by frequent collaborators David Gaurascio and Moses Port whose previous writing credits include shows like Mad About You and Just Shoot Me (talk about range – from genius to crap). I think it’s safe to say that their career in television wouldn’t get a big boost up if this show tanked, so presumably they didn’t set out to deliberately sabotage its viewership either.
So… laziness and obliviousness.
Now those of you who’ve read me in the past are perhaps already aware that I don’t have the least bit of problem with artists who cross cultural boundaries. I don’t believe that writers or artists of any kind should be prohibited from exploring other cultures just because they’re alien to it.
I also don’t believe that one must always come back with a positive view of the Other. The world is a big place and there are as many points of view as there are people and the best we can all hope for is a consensus, arrived at for our own individual reasons rather than a blind, lemming-like devotion to a single ideal. Disagreements, often volatile, are bound to take place.
However, as a writer, I do believe that one must be honest about one’s exploration of that Other. If you set out to do a hatchet job and all you’re looking for is vindication for your actions then that is an innately dishonest position for a creative voice (or any other for that matter) to inhabit. I’ll still say that you have a right to shout your insincerity from the rooftops but I will also reserve the right to stand on one opposite yours, trying to drown you out.
Aliens in America makes me want to stand with a loudspeaker outside the CW HQ. I suppose that really won’t help matters any but it would make me feel better.
First, the laziness: the lead character’s name is Raja Musharaff. That’s like me writing a story about a French guy and coming up with Sarkozy or a German and coming up with Merkel. Then, there’s the “Pakistani” background music, which sounds suspiciously Bollywood inspired. And of course, there’s the basic premise – when did exchange students turn into a magic fountain of cool? Excuse me, not just any exchange students but “Nordic god” exchange students. Am I missing some sort of cultural subtext or were we all transported to Nazi Germany when I wasn’t looking? Also, psst, I hate to tell you this but the great state of Wisconsin isn’t exactly virgin territory where South Asians are concerned. Think of us like a really pesky rash – we’re in all kinds of unexpected places.
Seriously, haven’t they heard of “consultants” at the CW? Forget all the desis who work in the entertainment business, couldn’t they have just talked to their doctor or CPA or corner 7 Eleven guy? Did they somehow not notice the vast population of desis walking around in L.A.? They didn’t even need to find a Pakistani. Any sort of South Asian would’ve done. I cite precedent: Raja is played by Adhir Kalyan.
But then Raja the character is a testament to laziness. The show may be called Aliens in America, but from the clips released so far, the Alien only exists to show up America. How are you supposed to root for (as you’re evidently supposed to) a cardboard cutout whose sole function is to expose bigotry while remaining miraculously clueless about the whole thing? I know I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief and not think too much but it’s a little hard to do that when a character’s very conception is all kinds of wrong. Questions keep cropping up, like: if the kid has not only learned English but has come all the way across to America and is plainly excited to be there, then why on earth wouldn’t he pull on a pair of jeans to get on a plane? Oh, I know, that wouldn’t be funny.
Then there is the obliviousness. I don’t know if you’ve heard seeing as how you were living under a rock and everything, but there happens to be some pretty severe internal strife going on in Pakistan right now and it relates back to this one guy called Pervez… Musharraf. Who just incidentally happens to be a dictator. Hey, what was the name of that kid in Aliens again? Raja Musharraf. Oh, dude, that’s like totally hilarious because “Raja” means “King” and …
For fuck’s sake, you dumbasses, it’s called Google and it’s not exactly a recent invention! I mean, my dad uses it! And he’s 70 years old and types with two fingers! What the hell is wrong with you?!
Then there is the portrayal of Middle America. I’m not saying Americans can’t be racist and that there aren’t a lot of people out there who look at brownies and automatically think terrorist. And yes, I would imagine it’s terribly hard to be a Muslim in America right now, especially if you’re from the Middle East or a place with ‘stan’ in its name. I’m just saying that there’s a reason why there’s a perception that Hollywood is full of smug, conceited know-it-alls who live in their own bubble and this show fits that stereotype.
The (Christian, as some helpfully point out) mother in Aliens is not just worried about Raja because of his Muslimness but is also worried about her daughter’s boyfriend – who is black. So it’s not just terrorism and Islam that are a problem here, but also color. Are there people like that out there? Yes. But does the show address it? I don’t know yet but in another clip (all clips available at the CW homepage), we see a happy dinner scene and gathered around the table is a talkative Raja as well as the black boyfriend. The mother is visibly displeased but she is willing to swallow it right then for whatever reason.
That to me is a huge, huge cop out. Racists don’t behave like that. But then, neither do rural Pakistani boys.
Of course, I could be completely wrong, in which case the CW should immediately fire its promo monkeys because the last thing you need is a promo department that not only gives away the whole plot but also manages to convince one that the show is complete crap (posters at the CW forums are already predicting that Aliens will be amongst the first to face the axe). And that’s why I’ll be watching this show, at least the pilot episode, this September on Mondays at 8.30 p.m. EST on the CW… with my fingers crossed because it really is a great concept that’s unfortunately just waiting to be let down.