Aliens in America and America’s “muslim problem”

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I’ve heard several folks suggest that CW’s Aliens in America is really about “middle America” – it’s really about the Tolchuk family – and does not warrant all the criticism that revolves around the show’s portrayal of a Pakistani exchange student. In a recent article in Flow, Ellen Seiter explains that the show is indeed about America’s “muslim problem.” Calling attention to efforts such as the Brookings Project on U.S. Race Relations with the Islamic World, Seiter writes:

What makes Aliens in America interesting is the uses to which it has been put. The sitcom was screened for a special Ramadan Iftar dinner hosted by the Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World. The show’s ratings have been abysmal, and this would not be a story worth recounting if it weren’t for the promotion of Aliens in America in the world of public diplomacy.

It is also interesting, though not surprising, to learn about how decisions regarding the show’s cast, setting, plot, etc. were made:

Opportunism (we will be the first US sitcom to use a Muslim) and desperation (how to compete with Disney’s domination of the high school sitcom) probably explain how this inane comedy about a Midwestern small town where no one has seen an immigrant before (a fallacious premise, but never mind) got greenlit. Even the show runners seemed mightily surprised to find themselves doing press for a “controversial” show and facing questions about how they are avoiding getting “Salman Rushdied”.2 The sitcom bears resemblances to Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years — the host family includes an overbearing mother, a conformist sister and a lonely but intelligent son. The writers gave Raja his Pakistani origin in a late plot twist (the character was originally a European exchange student). Arab Muslims seemed too dangerous, and it was thought best that the country be an ally of the US. Research on Pakistan consisted of reading wikipedia entries. A staffer on the show was elevated to the role of adviser. (According to Kamran Pasha, there are only two Muslims among the entire membership of the Writers Guild). The actor cast in the role, Adhir Kalyan, had grown up in South Africa and was selected from an on-line audition in London.

Contrast this with CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie: the show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, worked closely with a team of writers and helped them learn about Islam and other aspects of being Muslim in Canada; they tested ideas by screening pilot episodes in canadian-muslim communities; the costume designer worked closely with Sitara Hewitt to create a smartly dressed cosmopolitan Muslim woman; and so on. To borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, if we can think about television production as a “care structure,” the contrast between Aliens in America and Little Mosque on the Prairie becomes clear.

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