If comedy is tragedy plus time, to borrow a Woody Allen evergreen, there’s something moderately gutsy about lampooning present-day bigotry toward Muslims within a sitcom. Yet that’s actually among the least-developed aspects of “Aliens in America,” a series about a high schooler who feels like an outcast until a Pakistani exchange student moves in. Through the uneven pilot and next episode, the series exhibits heart and musters a few laughs, but as with companion “Everybody Hates Chris,” it’s the parents who steal the show — especially Amy Pietz as the peer-conscious protagonist’s overbearing mom.
At first, there’s a “Not again” quality to the format, with all the voiceover narration by teenage Justin (Dan Byrd), who wants to fit in so desperately he’s pleased to be included when the other guys talk about nailing his sister Claire (Lindsey Shaw), whose reshaped form has propelled her onto their Wisconsin high school’s “most bang-able” list.
For a kid like Justin, however, the indignities associated with “The Wonder Years” can only be preempted for so long, and the desire to help him adjust prompts mom Franny (Pietz) and dad Gary (“Gilmore Girls’ ” Scott Patterson) to be talked into taking in an exchange student — only to be stunned when Raja (Adhir Kalyan) exits the plane.
Raja is utterly guileless and clearly thrilled to be in little Medora, but his presence threatens to exacerbate Justin’s problems, what with a classmate saying she feels anger toward Raja because “his people blew up the buildings in New York.”
Franny is equally aghast over the terrorism thing, and when her husband suggests their Wisconsin town probably isn’t a prime target, she huffily questions his “civic pride.”
Perhaps to avoid looking too bleak, the pilot script by Moses Port and David Guarascio resolves these problems too quickly, partially via an extended bonding montage between Justin and Raja.
Granted, the growing-pains associated with their friendship are explored in the second half-hour, but the series is already sounding alarms about finding fresh avenues into this material, at the risk of turning the cheerful Raja into little more than a prop through which to filter Justin’s discomfort.
That would be a shame, because while the kids are alright, Pietz alone makes the series recommendable — adopting an accent that sounds straight out of “Fargo” and facing challenges with maternal grit and the prickly qualities of an exposed nerve. Patterson also has his moments as the penny-pinching father, who doesn’t mind having a hard-working, polite new occupant in the house.
As for “Aliens in America’s” future (and seriously, shouldn’t there be a moratorium on series with “America” in the title shot in Canada?), despite generating some advance attention due to the subject matter, the superior “Chris’ ” ratings struggles don’t bode well. That said, it’s at least an apt companion on a network (including its predecessors) that’s had difficulty establishing anything but the broadest comedy footprint.
In that context, “Aliens” won’t need breakout numbers to hang on, but the producers would still be well advised to say their prayers — five times a day or otherwise.