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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

United States Of Al offers cursory representation through dated comedy tropes

Parker Young and Adhir Kalyan in United States Of Al
Parker Young and Adhir Kalyan in United States Of Al
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment
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On the surface, it’s fairly obvious what the team behind United States Of Al was aiming for: The CBS sitcom is breaking a representation barrier on network TV by having an Afghan immigrant as its central character. While it’s primarily written by The Big Bang Theory alums David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, four members of the writing team are Afghans as well. In the show, Awalmir, or “Al” (Adhir Kalyan), starts a new life in suburban Ohio, where he moves in with combat veteran Riley (Parker Young), for whom he was an interpreter while in Afghanistan. The two forged such a close friendship that Riley helped Al get his Special Immigrant Visa, which in real life is available to only 50 interpreters or translators per year. United States Of Al tries to find a light in war-related PTSD and in the culture shock and hardships faced by a Muslim immigrant, but it’s trapped in the dated sitcom format and predictable, stereotypical attempts at humor.

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Sure, the show sets itself apart by including multiple actors of Afghan descent as well as writers who are Afghan and veterans; Middle East and North African representation is dismally low on television. But where does this particular inclusivity lead to? In the first four episodes, Al is the only Afghan or person of color with a speaking role, as the rest of the series regulars are all Riley’s family members. The sitcom came under scrutiny even before its premiere for casting Kalyan, who is South African and Indian, in the lead role. One of the series’ producers, Reza Aslan, defended this decision on Twitter, claiming that while they auditioned 100 Afghan actors, it’s tough to nail down the specificity of sitcom styling. Kalyan gained such experience starring in the short-lived CW sitcom Aliens In America and CBS’s Rules Of Engagement. As well-intentioned as it may be, it’s this exact method of presenting authentic, unexplored stories to mainstream audiences in the laziest manner that fails the marginalized community it’s trying to depict.

The pilot starts just before Al’s arrival, with Riley and his sister, Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer), waiting at the airport. It’s here that Lizzie asks her brother—who spent years in Afghanistan—what language is spoken there. It’s hard to believe she wouldn’t already know considering Riley’s time in Afghanistan and Al’s profession as a translator. We even learn her former fiancé also served overseas. She could have at the very least Googled this information? No, as the laugh track is here to remind viewers, not knowing Pashto is one of the country’s official languages as opposed to “Afghanistanish” is funny. The very first joke of the series sets up precisely the kind of wisecracks that are to be expected. With an offhand remark comparing Burning Man to the war and fighting the Taliban (tents, fire, loud sounds), Al is propelled into the unfamiliar territories of expansive grocery stores and Riley’s home, where he meets with Riley’s laid-back father, Art (Dean Norris), and estranged wife, Vanessa (Kelli Goss). Al also meets his goddaughter, Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie), who is Riley and Vanessa’s daughter. Al has saved Riley’s life many times, and now Riley’s family is letting him stay with them and helping him acclimate to a new world as he waits for the rest of his family’s visa situation to get sorted out.

United States Of Al seems to be trying to flip the script on the white savior trope. Al makes it his mission to try and repair Riley’s broken marriage, discipline Hazel (who doesn’t really need it, but Al sees her $1 allowance as akin to spoiling her), and encourage Riley and Lizzie to be more respectful of their father. They all end up learning from him as he begins to understand the American lifestyle. In doing so, the show often puts Al’s culture under the microscope, pointing to it as the primary source of his perspectives. However, his personality is presented only in broad strokes and clichés. There’s hardly any backstory for him in the early episodes, except for a quick video call with his mother and a reference to how his sister is disappointing the family by choosing not to get married. At one point in the pilot, when Lizzie goes out for a drink with friends at night and Riley exclaims she won’t be back till morning, Al asks him, “And you let her do this?” All of the main characters get specific, strong emotional hooks, and oftentimes, it feels like Al is only there to facilitate their stories. His own difficulties and culture shock become a punchline to jokes that aren’t funny and situations that aren’t believable. It doesn’t help that every single cast member’s performance is stoic. Even pioneer actor Norris doesn’t fit in.

The sitcom joins Chuck Lorre’s current lineup on CBS, which includes Bob Hearts Abishola, Young Sheldon, and Mom. Its boilerplate humor is reminiscent of another of his long-running sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory—particularly its character Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). Raj, an Indian immigrant, was always the butt of banal comments based on his ethnicity and an afterthought when it came to meaningful development. This treatment has been passed on in some ways to Al. Raj couldn’t talk to women for the first six seasons of TBBT unless he was drunk. Here, Al freaks out and is unable to concentrate when he faces a woman wearing shorts. There is some legitimacy in this behavior—Al is only used to seeing fully clothed women except for in movies—but the arc is too worn out for a show set in 2021.

It’s natural for a few stereotypes to be strewn in if the plot is about someone belonging to a different background. Stereotypes exist because they often reflect accurate experiences, but everyone is already aware of them. No group is a monolith, though, yet United States Of Al keeps its titular figure in a mold. It does take a couple more steps forward than TBBT in this case, by showing slightly more empathy to Al’s freakout over the shorts than just dreary innuendos (don’t worry, they’re still in the mix—Riley’s response is basically “wait till you see boobs”). In brief moments, the show does find a way to elevate itself. It’s certainly trying to be more moving in a way that’s similar to how Mom handled Bonnie’s (Allison Janney) addiction issues. But for touting itself for its representation, the show offers this tenderness mostly to its white characters, though even jokes that don’t involve Al simply fall flat.

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The tragic stories of the dangers that befall Afghan combat translators and interpreters who are left behind is well-documented. But telling the story of a fictional interpreter (although the show consulted real-life soldiers and their translators) who did get to migrate and start over without delving into the real challenges people like Al face is surface-level representation. It is possible for a comedy to dig into weighty issues without seeming forced (think One Day At A Time or Blackish). Al is a sweet, intelligent optimist who is ready to face the challenges of living in America. That’s already different from most depictions of MENA and Afghan characters, but sadly that’s about it. So far, his impediments have included women clad in half-pants and finding it hard not to meddle in Riley’s romantic or parental life. United States Of Al should be credited for opening the doors for Afghan TV creators and artists behind the scenes. It’s on screen that the show comes up short.