Avoiding Caricature in an American Sitcom About Islam

May 6, 2008

Author: Joe Rhodes

Source: International Herald Tribune


Two summers ago, when Moses Port and David Guarascio, both television writers, pitched their unorthodox and potentially controversial premise for "Aliens in America" - a comedy built around a Pakistani Muslim exchange student who moves in with a somewhat reluctant family in small-town Wisconsin - they were pleased to discover that studio and network executives at CW were enthusiastic about the idea.

"They were game for it," Port said of the CW executives who heard the writers out. In the end the challenge of selling a show that finds humor in the assumptions and suspicions that some Americans have about Islam was nothing compared with casting it, in particular the pivotal character of the exchange student, Raja Musharaff.

"There was a danger of the character being a caricature," Port said. After extensive searches in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, producers were beginning to wonder if they would ever find a young actor who could find the precarious balance of comedy and believability that the part demanded, not to mention the scrutiny that would surely come with portraying a Muslim on an American sitcom.

Then a London casting agent e-mailed them a low-resolution audition video of Adhir Kalyan, a South African of Indian descent, then 22 years old and with small credits in a couple of British television productions, including "Spooks," shown under the title "MI5" on BBC America.

"There was something about him," Guarascio said. "He seemed extremely wise beyond his years, which is such a key component of the character."

Port said: "And he imbued the material with a sweetness that really elevated the material. There was kind of soulfulness that we hadn't seen with anyone else."

Although the ratings haven't reflected it, and there's a real danger that the series won't be renewed for a second year, "Aliens in America" has been one of the most lauded new shows of the strike-shortened 2007-8 television season, high on many critics' "Shows You Should Be Watching" lists. And Kalyan's portrayal of Raja as a sometimes naïve, occasionally horrified outsider in the heart of America has drawn particular praise, not just from critics but from American Muslim advocacy groups.

See also: Islam, Arts/Media