In the winning "Aliens in America," premiering tonight on the CW, a small-town Wisconsin family decides to host an exchange student in an attempt to "guarantee" a friend for its socially inept teenage son, Justin (Dan Byrd). (Writing that, I suddenly feel I should explain that it is not a reality show.) Expecting a version of the tall, blond überteen pictured on the brochure proffered by Justin's guidance counselor, the family is surprised (to say the least) to meet instead Raja Musharaff (Adhir Kalyan), who in the middle of the Chippewa Falls Airport sets down his bags, raises his hands to heaven and cries, "Thank you, Allah, for the Tolchucks!"
Albeit at bottom a standard "strange-neighbors" comedy, "Aliens in America" is a hopeful sign that we may finally be emerging pop-culturally into the post-post-9/11 age -- or, at any rate, a post-"24" age, in which we are ready to find a little humor in the Clash of Civilizations, rather than just wanting to bathe in bloody fantasies of prophylactic superspies. Created by David Guarascio and Moses Port ("Just Shoot Me!"), the show is consistently clever and lively, well played and directed, its corners filled with nice throwaway lines and small visual jokes.
"Raja, you are so different from us -- how does that feel?" asks a teacher who has just introduced him to her class as "a Pakistani who practices Muslimism." And when he replies that he doesn't understand the question, she continues: "How does everyone else feel about Raja and his differences?"
"I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York," says one girl to approving noises. In the hall, someone yells, "Apu, where's my Slushie?"
Mother Franny Tolchuck (Amy Pietz, from "Caroline in the City," nicely mixing suspicion with politeness) at first plots to send him back ("If I ordered a coffee maker and I got a toaster, I'd return that"). Of course, Raja appreciates his new family more than its members do each other, and he helps out in a way that is as inexplicable to them as his praying to Mecca. He clears the table and does the dishes and actually listens to what other people have to say, even when it's nonsense. Soon, despite himself, Justin -- whose usual response to stress is not to pray but to "eat a brownie or buy a CD" -- finds himself telling Raja "stuff I wouldn't even tell the guys from chorus." They bond.
For all its engagement with what might be called political unrealities, "Aliens in America" is at heart just another series about kids on the margins of high school society, whose battles all are local and whose experience of terror is largely confined to bullies, the opposite sex, the possibility of public ridicule, social ostracism and the nagging sense that you actually may be the awful person you imagine other people believe you to be. (Nor do I want to underestimate the importance of such shows to the health of the nation.)
The plural "Aliens" of the title is not incidental: It includes Justin too, a picked-upon "weirdo" who finds himself listed among the school's "10 most bangable girls," alongside sister Claire (the marvelous Lindsey Shaw, from "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide"). Claire has her own problems: She may be kept off the cheerleading squad, to keep it from looking "soft on terror." (Cheerleading is about leadership, she's told: "When you yell, 'Go Muskies!' what you're actually saying is that in this country, there is absolutely nothing any boy can do that a girl can't cheer for.")
The CW has scheduled it alongside "Everybody Hates Chris," another show about kids that has not been made specifically for kids. It shares DNA with "Malcolm in the Middle," "Clarissa Explains It All" and "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," cartoonish stories narrated by young folk whose parents are almost surrealistically strange (dad Gary Tolchuck, played by Scott Patterson of "Gilmore Girls," is raising alpacas in the backyard) and in which most everyone in authority is trouble. (Christopher B. Duncan is superbly smooth as a guidance counselor-cum-car salesman.) There are all kinds of enemies in this world.
'Aliens in America'
Where: The CW
When: 8:30 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)