In the course of individual human development, is there any time when there's more potential for wreaking havoc on fragile psyches than the high school years? For all but a fortunate few - the jocks, the drop-dead gorgeous girls, the rare teens with the self-assurance to just enjoy who they are - that time of life is anything but the Wonder Years.
Justin Tolchuk is all too familiar with the intolerable cruelty that teens can inflict on each other. He's one of the main characters in a new comedy series called Aliens in America, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. tonight on The CW.
For Justin (Dan Byrd, A Cinderella Story), a nerdy 16-year-old heading into his junior year in a small Wisconsin town, the new school year promises more of the same torment and humiliation that he's suffered every other year.
And making matters even worse this year is the fact that Justin's freshman sister Claire (Lindsey Shaw, from Nickelodeon's Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide) experienced a development spurt over the summer and is now a buxom beauty. This, of course, makes her instantly popular.
Things are so miserable for Justin that even his clueless mother (Amy Pietz, Caroline in the City) takes notice. When she learns of a foreign exchange program and sees a strapping Nordic hunk on the program's brochure, she decides that a studly exchange student would be the perfect way to get Justin an instant friend and maybe boost his coolness quotient as well. And when Justin's tightwad dad hears about the monthly stipend that host families receive, he's quickly on board with the plan, too.
But when the exchange student shows up, he turns out not to be a tall, blond, Swedish jock but a short, dark, Pakistani Muslim boy named Raja (Adhir Kalyan) who's every bit as geeky as Justin. Raja is not at all what Mom had in mind, and she initially wants to ship him back to wherever he came from.
"If I ordered a coffeemaker and I got a toaster, I'd return that," she reasons.
Eventually, though, in a poignant scene, Mom has a change of heart, and Raja ends up staying with the Tolchuks. That's both good news and bad news for the sweet and cheerful young Pakistani. He loves the idea of a year in America, but with his odd mannerisms, he's an instant outcast at school, where even the teachers seem critical of his "Muslimism."
In one class, when a boneheaded teacher asks how students feel about having Raja as a new classmate, one girl raises her hand. "I feel angry," she says, "because his people blew up the buildings in New York." When a stunned Raja tries to explain that isn't true, the teacher scolds him for speaking without raising his hand.
The school's reaction to this outsider makes life even harder for Justin, but then a funny thing begins to happen. Justin discovers that underneath Raja's flowing dasha and white kufi - that's a hat - this stranger is really just a lonely kid like himself. He begins opening up to Raja about his problems, his frustrations, even his dreams of someday being popular.
In a voice-over narration that's reminiscent of an earlier coming-of-age series, The Wonder Years, Justin muses that his new friend has managed to make him feel less like a complete outcast.
"I always felt like an outsider and a weirdo," he says, "and then here comes this kid from a village in Pakistan, and suddenly I'm not an outsider any more. Just a weirdo."
The premise behind Aliens is not entirely original - a series called Little Mosque on the Prairie has been airing since January in Canada - but this one focuses as much on the pain, challenges, and pleasures of adolescence as on culture clashes and intolerance.
My only gripe is that in trying to skewer prejudices, the show's creators display some prejudice of their own, resorting to clichd stereotypes in their portrayal of small-town Midwesterners as culturally ignorant bigots who are insensitive, fearful, and resentful of anybody different from them.
Some viewers might consider Aliens politically incorrect, and they wouldn't be wrong. But it's also a warm, surprisingly charming series that manages to be disarmingly funny without being sickly sweet.
And it illustrates quite neatly that you don't have to be a Muslim from Pakistan to feel alienated in America.