I’m on record as thinking Men In Black is pretty wonderfully progressive about immigration, focusing on assimilation and accommodation rather than demonization. So I was already prepared to love Ugly Americans when I watched the first season this weekend. Mark Lilly, the main character, is the inverse of Will Smith’s agent in every way: he’s a social worker rather than an asskicking cop, a slightly out-of-shape white guy rather than a sleekly-dressed sexual specimen, a guy who’s dating a demon who is totally out of his league rather than engaging in unexpected flirtation with a nerdy-yet-alluring mortuary worker. Given how good the show is at riffing on its immigration metaphor, as Lilly tries to help vampires, disembodied brains, and pumpkin-headed aliens into New York society, it’s almost a shame that it keeps veering off into parodies of things like reality television, which now seems like it’s a mandatory stop for any sitcom, animated or no.
Ugly Americans is an almost perfect example of the power of substitution and juxtaposition humor, particularly when the show is riffing on anti-Semitism. When Mark finds his law enforcement colleague, Frank Grimes, harassing a squid by exposing him to the air even though the squid has papers, Mark puts a stop to it, snapping “I know they look the same to you, but I happen to have been at this squid’s bar mitzvah.” The joke works because it’s not like squid are coded Jewish, so it’s a very silly line delivered with intense sincerity, but it also gives the squid an immediate context, not just in humanity, but in a specific corner of it. Later, Grimes complains of vampires that “They control the television news, the press, and the weather,” taking the paranoia a step further in a way that reinforces the mythical power of the universe. And later, when Mark’s zombie roommate Randall gets on a reality show, one of his faerie roommates titters in confessional that “I totally have a crush on Randall, but my dad would kill me if he found out he’s not Jewish.” It’s a line that’s as much about the persistence of the differences that we cling to, their power even in a world where we’d have potentially more substantial things to worry about.
The show’s also very good on the question of employment for immigrants, and the power of state bureaucracies. King Kong, as it turns out, is depressed over a wrongful termination. “I was hired to clean the Empire State Building and that’s all I was doing. When can I get my job back?” A human parking attendant apologies for one of her employees, a troll, telling human customers “I’m so sorry, sir. He’s a diversity hire. That’ll be $4.75. And zip up your vest. This is a work environment.” Later, when he’s fired, the troll becomes fodder for a reality television stunt. Mark’s clients aren’t just vulnerable to their employers—they’re vulnerable to him and Frank, too. “What say you to a trip to the Natural History Museum to visit the man-bird exhibit?” Mark asks enthusiastically at a citizenship class. “Technically, he can have us deported!” one of his clients warns another before they answer. In another episode, a family of pumpkin-headed creatures tells trick-or-treaters that “We don’t celebrate that vile and racist holiday,” only to have a militant Frank pop up, declare “It’s called Halloween!” and threaten the family into giving the kids candy.
Ugly Americans doesn’t really shy away from the weirdness of its aliens, it accepts that just as it might be somewhat weird to find your zombie roommate sleeping with a disembodied brain, big turnovers in neighborhoods and influxes of new customs might bring some discomfort along with them. What it doesn’t accept is that such discomfort should be permanent, or impossible to overcome. It’s a respectful, useful position. Integrating immigrants into American society involves work both for the people who are coming and the folks who are already hear. But just because it involves work doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.