Thursday, October 4, 2007

“Aliens in America” Is a Welcome Invasion, While “Carpoolers” Is Stuck in the Slow Lane

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Sitcoms have been around for nearly 60 years, so, as an audience, we have seen a lot. Some have said we’ve seen it all. The better comedies have a way of subverting our expectations, while those that fall into the tried-and-true patterns usually lean to the less interesting. For example, there was a moment in last week’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother” when Marshall (Jason Segal) revealed that he had lied to his wife, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), about including a personal letter in his “death folder.” On a less-inspired sitcom, the plot would have followed the hijinks of Marshall trying to sneak a letter into the folder without Lily catching him. But on a creative, innovative show like “How I Met Your Mother,” the writers took the characters in a different direction that was truer to the characters, more interesting and, most importantly, funnier.

Two new sitcoms debuted this week that were on my list of the five debuting shows I was most looking forward to seeing. One, “Aliens in America,” chose the “How I Met Your Mother” path of aiming high, while the other, “Carpoolers,” relied on cliches and themes that have been beaten to death by other sitcoms.

“Aliens in America,” which airs on the CW on Mondays at 8:30 Eastern Time, manages to be funny while also addressing serious themes. In that way, it reminded me of the delicate balance “Scrubs” pulls off, where a scene of a patient dying can follow an instance of wacky comedy, but it never feels inappropriate. In “Aliens” it’s not life and death but religion and politics that provide the edge to the proceedings.

In “Aliens,” a smooth-talking principal (Christopher B. Duncan) talks a suffocating (although I’m sure she would consider herself doting) mother named Franny (Amy Pietz) into taking in a foreign exchange student as a way of providing a cool best friend for her awkward, geeky teenage son Justin (Dan Byrd). While the program’s catalogue shows a blond athletic type, when the student arrives at the airport, he is a Pakistani dressed in the traditional salwar kameez.

When I read about the series over the summer, I immediately thought there were two ways the writers could go horribly awry with the Pakistani exchange student. I was afraid they would take a “24” view of Muslims and portray him as a conniving wannabe terrorist. More likely, I feared, they would turn him into a total caricature, Urkel with a skull cap, acting like a buffoon and providing a 21st century Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot in “Perfect Strangers”), something this era certainly did not need.

Thankfully, Raja (Adhir Kalyan) is a three-dimensional kid. On the one hand, he is so grateful for the opportunity to live in the U.S. that he immediately helps out with the household chores and even asks permission before moving a book the family had left in his new bedroom. As Franny gets increasingly less comfortable with Raja’s presence in the house (topped off by Justin befriending him and even joining him in prayer), Raja doesn’t let on that he’s aware at the stir he is causing. And yet, when the moment comes that Franny comes up with a lame excuse (an insurance snafu) for why he can’t stay, the expression on his face shows a mix of hurt and resigned acceptance, as if it was something he expected all along. The expert writing and acting of the moment was worthy of a show that deserves a long run on television. And it only gets better when Raja reveals a sad piece of information about his life (I don’t want to spoil it), and Franny, realizing for the first time that Raja is just a scared teenager, melts, inviting him back into the home.

Justin is also a three-dimensional lead for the show, far more down-to-earth and real than the super science nerds of time slot opponent “The Big Bang Theory” (which I like, but not as much as “Aliens”), and yet he has a charm that lets you know that it will not be drag spending a half hour with him once a week. As much as I love the critically lauded “Freaks and Geeks,” the uber dweebs on that show were so real and so awkward, it was often painful to watch, in a good way, of course.

Franny is also a really interesting character. Pietz, after playing a tough Jersey chick on “Caroline in the City” and a hayseed on “Rodney,” finally gets the chance to play a character that shares her Midwestern background (the show is set in Wisconsin, Pietz’s home state). And she nails the vocal patterns and tics of a Midwestern mom. Franny is single-minded in her need to help Justin get through his awkward teenage years, so much so that she virtually ignores her pretty, seemingly less needy daughter, Claire (Lindsey Shaw), who is trying to adjust to her newfound curves and resulting popularity. Even Claire’s declaration that she wants to go on the pill isn’t enough to deter Franny’s attention from Justin and her desire to get Raja out of the house. This mother-daughter and mother-son dynamic is certainly fresh for a television comedy, and it pays off beautifully in the final scene when Claire finally is able to get Franny’s attention at a family dinner (again, no spoilers).

Even the principal, Mr. Matthews, is a fun send-up of the noble African-American authority figure. This guy is not just a school-runner, but he also happens to be, we are told early on, the leading car salesman in the town. And he needs every bit of his persuasive abilities to try and get Franny to agree to keep Raja. In fact, Mr. Matthews has no trouble admitting that another family freaked out when they heard they were getting a Pakistani student and pulled out of the program, so he decided not to tell Franny about Raja’s nationality before he arrived in Wisconsin. Duncan plays Mr. Mathews as the coolest guy in the room and it works. The character is very funny.

Even the father, Gary (Scott Patterson, miles away from his turn as Luke on “Gilmore Girls”), manages to avoid the pitfall of being the trite clueless dad. Gary is, to put it bluntly, cheap, and he is far too interested in the $500 a month he gets for keeping Raja and the free labor Raja provides to maintain any concern over his nationality or religion. The writers skirt the line very carefully, making Gary the broadest character in the family, but at the same time, keeping him from going too far over the edge. Patterson also does an excellent job of making good choices, underplaying Gary’s excitement, giving an almost sly “I know what I’m doing” angle to the character. I think what works best about Gary is that even though he clearly loves to make a buck, the fact that he never says or does anything to give off the impression he has any problem taking in a Pakistani student is the subtle message of tolerance that allows the rest of the family to come around.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the most important thing about the show: It’s funny. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. Like Franny, so uncomfortable with Raja’s arrival, she insists, without breaking her smile, that he go straight to bed, even though it’s only 6:30 p.m. When he politely notes its early, she finally snaps, telling him that she’s like his mother in the U.S. so he has to listen to her. Franny’s honest observation that they should be able to return Raja, since, “If I ordered a coffee maker and I received a toaster, I'd return that,” also killed.

Unfortunately, “Carpoolers,” on the other hand, does not provide any real laughs. You never know if a new show will work or not, but who would have expected an offering from Bruce McCulloch of “Kids in the Hall” to be so conventional and boring?

The show, which airs on ABC Tuesdays at 8:30 Eastern Time, focuses on four guys who carpool to work together, and three of them are broadly drawn cartoons that belong in one of ABC’s brain-dead sitcoms from the last few years (like my regular punching bag, “According to Jim”).

Gracen (Fred Goss) is the only remotely interesting character of the four. A mediator who is married to real estate speculator Leila (Faith Ford, who is far better than the material she’s stuck with), he exhibits a low-key, the-suburbs-are-killing-me deadpan sarcasm that could have been funny and engaging, if he was in a better show. In “Carpoolers,” however, he is saddled with some truly bad material. Gracen’s plot in the pilot centers around his panic at the realization that -- gasp, hold onto your hats, folks -- with Leila’s success in the real estate market, she’s making more money than him, so much so that she could afford to buy a fancy toaster. Putting aside the bad luck of the real estate market tanking and making the plot point distractingly unrealistic, this conflict -- his wife is making her own money -- is so dated, it feels like something Ralph Kramden would have worried about on “The Honeymooners.” The fact that all of the action in the first episode spins off of this alleged great calamity brings the entire thing down into a crashing heap of irrelevance and boredom.

And that’s not all. Gracen and Leila have a son with the improbable name Marmaduke (T.J. Miller) who is not only cartoonishly boorish and dumb (he walks around in his underwear and doesn’t grasp the most basic of concepts), but appears to be about ten years younger than his parents. I spent the first half of the episode asking myself, “Who is this guy supposed to be? His brother? Her brother?” Marmaduke towers over his parents, both in height and bulk (he’s built like a tight end). When one of the guys referred to Marmaduke as Gracen’s son, I didn’t quite believe it. I thought it had to be some kind of joke. Sadly, it wasn’t. It’s amazing to me that such a glaringly ridiculous notion was able to make it past the network suits.

Ford and Goss have an interesting vibe, though. It’s a shame. I would be interested in a show in which they played this couple, only in a world that was a little more believable. And funny.

The rest of the carpooling crew is just too ridiculous to take seriously (or, more importantly, to laugh at). Tim Peper plays the carpool’s new guy, Dougie, half of a sickly sweet young couple with a new baby. His naivete and need to stay in the carpool are unbelievable and unexplainable.

As is the existence of ladies man Laird (Jerry O'Connell), a newly divorced, swinging dentist (yes, because dentists are known to be such studs). Laird is the alpha male of the group and the ringleader. He is behind making Gracen worry about Laila’s earnings, and he delights in hazing Dougie because he’s the new guy. He also uses his dentist contacts (again, they are really trying to have us believe dentists are cool) to get Laila’s bank balance for Gracen. The one thing Laird can’t do, apparently, is be funny. He, too, feels like a product of an earlier era, kind of like a better looking version of Jerry the dentist on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

But the worst character of all has to be Aubrey (Jerry Minor), who looks and sounds like a hen-pecked, grown up version of Urkel, only less subtle (yes, I meant to write that). Aubrey speaks in an exaggerated, high-pitched geek tone, drives a boxy American car, and works full time while also doing all the housework and child-rearing while his wife sits and watches television. Why does he allow her to do nothing while he hustles around nearly to the breaking point? We don’t know. We don’t even get to see the wife, except for her feet dangling off the end of a recliner. And since her feet look like they belong to Shaquille O'Neal, I’m guessing he’s not putting up with her laziness because she’s hot.

It’s not like I’m inflicting some kind of external judgment on Aubrey’s life. If he was portrayed as being happy, it might have been an interesting twist. Alas, he’s miserable, telling the guys that the two hours he drives to and from work is the only time he enjoys all day. It’s hard for us to believe, though, since the half hour we spend with these guys is so painful. You want Aubrey to tell his wife to get off her ass and help him, or to pick up his stuff and leave, but the character is such an underdeveloped cartoon, you just don’t care.

The jokes go for a kind of madcap silliness, but they fall flat. Laird recruits Dougie and Aubrey to break into Gracen’s house to steal Laila’s new toaster because Laird is convinced that eliminating it will solve all of Gracen’s problems. The guys twice battle the rich carpoolers for an empty space, both interactions ending with Dougie getting hit by the enemy car. You can kind of see McCulloch trying to be wacky, but his characters and premises are so tired and cliched, the gags fall miserably flat.

Stick with “Aliens” and its mix of heart and comedy. It may be your only chance to spend time with a Pakistani exchange student. It certainly beats being trapped in a car with the guys from “Carpoolers.”