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"Aliens in America" premiered on the CW Network this week. It's a sitcom that tries to make (unintelligible) to some of the topical tensions of the times, about a family in Wisconsin called the Tolchucks who take in an exchange student from Pakistan who's a devout Muslim.
Show to try - the show tries to play issues like fear of terrorism and anxiety about civil rights for laughs in a high school setting. Of course, the producer is like most producers, just want "Aliens in America" to catch on with the young viewers, but the show is also getting attention from the kinds of people who may not usually watch sitcoms.
NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.
BILAL QURESHI: In a darkened auditorium at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a group of students studying politics in the Middle East sits down to watch the new TV show, "Aliens in America."
(Soundbite of show, "Aliens in America")
Mr. ADHIR KALYAN (Actor): (As Raja Musharaff) And today is my first day. I do not mean to sound…
QURESHI: In this scene, the exchange student Raja is introduced to his classmates by his new teacher.
(Soundbite of show, "Aliens in America")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actress): (As teacher) For one year, we will be in the presence of a real-life Pakistani who practices Muslim(ph). That means, we have the opportunity to know about his culture and he about ours. So let's be in a dialogue. Raja, you are so different from us. How does that feel?
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) I am not sure I understand.
Unidentified Woman #2: (As teacher) Mm-hmm. Think about it. How does everyone else feel about Raja and his differences?
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (As character) Well, I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York.
Mr. KALYAN: (As Raja) But that is not true.
Unidentified Woman #1: (As teacher) Okay, Raja, in America, you have to wait until you're called on and I appreciate if you raise your hand. Now who else is angry at Raja?
QURESHI: Since 9/11, Muslim characters on television have tended to appear in weighty dramas like Fox's "24" and the Showtime series "Sleeper Cell." These characters are usually villains, conspirators and terrorists.
Ms. DINA THAKHURI(ph) (Student, Georgetown University): And so I anticipated seeing that once again.
QURESHI: Dina Thakhuri is an Arab-American graduate student at Georgetown. She attended the screening with her friends, and as the show progressed, her attitude began to change.
Ms. THAKHURI: I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that it was sort of a creative and clever social commentary and critique.
QURESHI: "Aliens in America" is not the first American sitcom to address cultural bias or politics head-on. "All in the Family," one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history, made light of everything from racism to sexism when it aired in the 1970s. Of course, it was also really funny.
Mr. DAVID GUARASCIO (Co-creator, "Aliens in America"): The truth is we're doing the show to be funny first.
QURESHI: David Guarascio is one of the co-creators of "Aliens in America."
Mr. GUARASCIO: Anything that might be thought provoking or interesting or even a lesson about multiculturalism - might be some gravy(ph), if some people take that from the show as well.
QURESHI: Some are taking that from the show. The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Washington-based civil rights organization, has praised the show for portraying Raja as a sympathetic and nuance character.
Cynthia Schneider heads the public diplomacy program at the Brookings Institution. She screened the first episode of "Aliens in America" for a D.C. policy crowd. She says while sitcoms don't exactly shape legislation…
Professor CYNTHIA SCHNEIDER (Diplomacy, Georgetown University): They can prepare the grounds for conversations in a way that really nothing else can.
QURESHI: And those conversations affect attitudes and perceptions and stereotypes at a time when tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world are high. At the panel discussion at Georgetown after the screening of the show, a number of students talked about how they learned about American popular culture growing up.
Dina Thakhuri was one of them.
Ms. THAKHURI: And a lot of stuff I learned about American ethnic cultures in society language, lingo is (unintelligible) from television. And it's certainly is a powerful shaper of our views and our ideologies.
QURESHI: The challenge for the creators of "Aliens in America" will be keeping the plot lines fresh without it becoming a weekly public service announcement on tolerance.
Deborah Jaramillo teaches courses on television at Georgetown.
Professor DEBORAH JARAMILLO (Lecturer, Georgetown University): This show has an enormous burden on it and the writers feel that. And certainly their aim isn't to necessarily change the world, but they're presenting issues in an interesting and in a funny and insightful way. And we'll see what happens as it goes along.
QURESHI: Whatever happens will depend on how many people watch. In its first week, the show drew less than 1 percent of TV viewers or 2.3 million people, a fairly low number by Nielsen's standards. So any broader cultural impact "Aliens in America" may have will depend first on whether viewers and advertisers actually tune in.
Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
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