By Amy Ryan
October 02, 2007 at 08:24 PM EDT

Aliens in America, which premiered last night on the CW, is a sweet, adorable, funny, mildly biting sitcom that I probably would have enjoyed more if I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before. Let’s see: single-camera show about a teenage misfit in the suburbs (like Malcolm in the Middle); the kid is a wisenheimer who lives in Wisconsin and who befriends a swarthy exchange student (à la That ’70s Show); and he has a penny-pinching dad, and he finds himself caught up in issues of bigotry and tolerance as he faces hazing from his classmates (see Everybody Hates Chris, which is on the CW… right before Aliens).

Still, the pilot showed some promise (in fact, EW TV critic Gillian Flynn, who’s seen more episodes, gives the series a B+). I like Dan Byrd (pictured, left), who stars as dorky Justin; he makes Topher Grace’s Eric on That ’70s Show seem suave and cool. I like Amy Pietz, as Justin’s fretful, borderline racist mom; she’s a lot funnier here than she was as Lea Thompson’s slutty pal on Caroline and the City. And I especially like Adhir Kalyan (right), who has the trickiest role, as lovable Pakistani exchange student Raja. Like Justin, he’s a pretty ordinary teenage boy, but his foreign clothes, his extreme politeness, and his eagerness to help out with household chores mark him as an even bigger dork than Justin, so it’s no wonder that they become fast friends.

Where the show veers into new territory is in its frank depiction of the hatred directed Raja’s way because he’s Muslim. Justin’s mom fears he’s a potential terrorist, and Raja’s classmates and teachers are angry with him because of 9/11 (despite his protests that Pakistan had nothing to do with it). I worry that the show will get too self-congratulatory over its politics, as if it were doing something bold by creating a positive Muslim character; actually, Raja is such a model kid that hating him is as absurd as hating Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or hating Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If, as Aliens progresses, it dares to show Raja as a Pakistani Muslim who’s worthy of respect and affection despite his flaws and foibles — not because he has none — well, that might actually be courageous.

addCredit(“Credit: Marcel Williams”)