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An immigrant who grew up watching 1990s sitcoms now sees their flaws

  • As a "Lebanese oddball" growing up in Missouri, Maya Salam remembers obsessing over 1990s sitcoms, from Saved by the Bell to That '70s Show to Full House, RoseanneFresh Prince of Bel-Air and more. "On sitcoms like these, the kids lollygagged around, propping skateboards by front doors before sitting down to dinner tables piled high with pizza boxes," says Salam. "The grown-ups moved with a distinct ease and playfulness, without a trace of the formality I saw in my relatives. And I glimpsed an adulthood where high-fives and squeals of delight replaced three kisses on cheeks. I long looked back on these shows warmly, light- but big-hearted comedies that provided comfort anytime. But in recent years — with popular new series that feature immigrant characters with edge, charisma and wit — a whiff of resentment has started to invade my fuzzy feelings. It became inescapably clear that the few such TV characters of my childhood, particularly those who sounded foreign, served one purpose: the punchline. On Perfect Strangers, which I adored as a girl, Balki Bartokomous was a childlike sheepherder who arrived to Chicago from a strange land, the fictional island of Mypos, where telephones and indoor plumbing were scarce. He had bizarre, silly traditions and garbled American idioms with an exaggerated, mysterious accent. His catchphrase: 'Don’t be ridiculous!' On That ’70s Show (which debuted in 1998, over a decade after Perfect Strangers), Fez’s real name was considered unpronounceable by his friends, so they used the word for a hat worn by men in some Muslim countries. They also referred to him as 'the foreigner. We were never sure where he was from — just that he landed in a Wisconsin town as a foreign exchange student who struggled with English. One parent, Red, called him a bevy of incorrect names like Ahmad, Ali Baba or Pelé. Even as I laughed along, I saw reflections of myself in the ways these characters were othered, and the same kind of cheap jokes that were flung at them had long been flung at me. Being un-American, it seemed obvious, was not an option."

    TOPICS: Perfect Strangers, That '70s Show, Retro TV