ALIENS IN AMERICA. 8:30 tonight,
SAY WHAT you like about television - it's the one place where people of all faiths can come together to celebrate Christmas.
Even people whose faiths don't actually include a celebration of the birth of Christ.
In support of the biggest shopping season of the year, TV generally does its best to overlook religious differences that might put a damper on the festivities and slow the economy.
In Iowa, presidential candidate and Mormon Mitt Romney may feel the need to explain that he's not that far apart, faithwise, from Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee, but if he and Huckabee were sitcom characters, their only conflict would probably be over the size of the inflatable Santas on their respective front lawns.
Because as long as you're on board for Christmas, you're OK with TV.
Even if you're a Pakistani Muslim, like Raja (Adhir Kalyan), the serenely spiritual exchange student on the CW's "Aliens in America," which tonight uses its Christmas episode to try to make a slightly provocative point about Christian America. Too bad it uses a sledgehammer.
Up until now, I've been fine with "Aliens' " stereotyping of Raja's host family, the Tolchuks, and their Wisconsin neighbors as shallow, xenophobic but basically goodhearted people who can learn a lot from Raja, a 16-year-old orphan who's smart, funny and a bit of a goody two-shoes.
When the show premiered, some inveighed against its portrait of middle America, but middle America, I figured, could take it. I did worry that Raja was a little too good to be true and that the Tolchuks were learning far more from him than he from them. Trade imbalances are never a good thing.
But tonight, when Raja points out that the family's regular Sunday visits to a big-box store seem to be their version of church, his moral superiority becomes a little hard to take.
Especially after the Tolchuks' teenage daughter, Claire (Lindsey Shaw), asks for birth-control pills for Christmas.
If you can buy that these particular Midwestern Christians are such infrequent churchgoers that they didn't realize their church had been turned into a fast-food place, then you're not going to have a problem with tonight's "Aliens."
But I think a Christmas episode that trivializes Christianity is way too easy a shot for a show that's capable of more.
When "Big Love: The Complete Second Season" goes on sale tomorrow, the four-disc DVD set will include three short prequels that give us a glimpse into life inside HBO's polygamous Henrickson family before we met them in Season 1.
One, "Post-Partum," takes place five years earlier, right after second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) gives birth to her first son and is visited in the hospital by first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn). The second, "Meet the Babysitter," is set two years later and is Nicki's first encounter with Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who's destined to become wife No. 3.
The final, and the shortest, "Moving Day," shows the three wives ganging up on Bill (Bill Paxton) to get him to buy them separate but adjoining homes.
Of the three, "Post-Partum" is probably the best, and the most tantalizing, since the whole series turns on the decision Barb had made not long before that to allow Bill to take a second wife, a decision we already know to be in some way related to the cancer that left her unable to have more children.
And it's that scene, whether as flashback or prequel, that I'm still hoping to see someday.
Turns out I'm not the only one irked by shows that can't wait for the commercial breaks to start selling.
Last week, "one of my favorite shows, 'Ugly Betty,' succeeded in product placement so blatant as to be disgusting," writes reader Louis Kleinerman, of Audubon, N.J. "Betty is invited to attend the premiere of an insipid romantic comedy called '27 Dresses.' Betty gushes over the opportunity. Fast-forward to the next commercial. What do you know? It's a commercial for '27 Dresses.' "
Kleinerman added that he was "astounded that a show like this would stoop" to this level and speculated that it might be ABC parent Disney at work.
But no, the film in question, though it's headlined by another ABC star, "Grey's Anatomy's" Katherine Heigl, is actually from Fox 2000 Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment.
The shilling, on the other hand, is part of the DNA of many shows produced by Ben Silverman, a former agent who's now entertainment chief at NBC but who made his name in Hollywood by packaging shows from other countries - "The Office," "Ugly Betty," "Coupling" - for American TV as well as for "integrating" products into shows like "The Biggest Loser," "The Restaurant" and, yes, "Betty."
Let the viewer beware. *