Premieres tonight on The CW, 8:30 p.m. ET/ 7:30 p.m. CT
So much could've gone wrong with Aliens In America. For starters, it's a CW sitcom that pairs a small town Wisconsin high school nerd (Dan Byrd) with a Pakistani Muslim exchange student (Adhir Kalyan) for well, given the off-brand network affiliation and the generally crummy state of the TV sitcom, one would expect the words "ensue," "hijinks" and "wacky" to show up in that sentence, if not necessarily in that order (and possibly joined by the words "insensitive" and "culturally"). But the Aliens In America pilot builds up a store of goodwill before it even gets to its premise. The first act of the first episode sets up Byrd's loser life, in which–despite his mom's best efforts to "normalize" him by buying him stylish clothes and fixing his teeth–he's still rocking the spazz hair and obsessively poking his tongue where his braces used to be. Meanwhile, Byrd's younger sister has come back for the fall term with a fully developed hottie-body that has her on the senior class's "Top 10 Most Bangable Girls" list. The bad news? Byrd's on the list too.
Between the snappy pace, Byrd's wry narration, and a note of believable absurdity that has Byrd's tormenters asking him, regarding his sister, "Are you on that?," Aliens In America resembles the best parts of the oft-dicey sitcoms That '70s Show and Malcolm In The Middle–the early seasons of both, anyway–with some overtones of Freaks And Geeks. And thankfully, it doesn't take a turn for the silly once Kalyan is introduced. Instead, the genteel Muslim kid brings the characters and the milieu into focus. He becomes an instant object of scorn for his classmates and even some of his teachers–one of whom refers to him as "a real live Pakistani, who practices Muslismism"–and that virulent unpopularity bonds him to Byrd. And while Byrd's status-obsessed mother initially wants to ship Kalyan back to Pakistan, she changes her mind when she hears he's an orphan, proving that while she may have more in common with her foxy daughter than her geeky son, she's still inclined to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
It's that sweetness that buoys Aliens In America–that, and its surprisingly poignant exploration of the virtues of trying to fit in versus daring to be yourself. That theme gets a fuller workout in the second episode than in the first, but even in the pilot, it's clear that Byrd feels more comfortable with himself once Kalyan arrives. Or maybe he's just feeling relief that he's no longer at the bottom of the social totem pole.
-Mitigation To The Rave #1: The second episode of Aliens, while almost as funny as the first, builds to a scene of dramatic reconciliation that's way too "sitcommy." This show ought to be above that.
-Mitigation To The Rave #2: Given that the show is from Byrd's perspective, the lack of likable characters outside his immediate family is understandable, but his circle of friends is going to have to expand a little or else the joke of two outsiders standing against an army of Wisconsin rubes is going to wear thin.
-Mitigation To The Rave #3: Though the rock soundtrack is well-chosen, it's way too wall-to-wall. Ditto the narration. Both are being used as a crutch in the early going, and again, it's a crutch that a show this smart shouldn't need.
-A happy surprise: Gilmore Girls' surly diner owner Scott Patterson plays Byrd's dad on Aliens, and even though his broad comic portrayal of an optimistic opportunist is nothing like Luke Danes, it's genuinely funny and likable. Who would've thought Patterson had another good TV role in him?
-Line of the week: "This was the strangest thing I'd ever seen in my house. And we had a clown die in our living room."