- “United States of Al” will premier on April 1 on CBS.
- The odd-couple sitcom is about a U.S. Marine who helps his Afghan interpreter come to America.
- The author of this review, Ali Latifi, is based in Kabul and got an advance look at two episodes.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Kabul – Last week a tweet appeared in my timeline criticizing the trailer of a new CBS sitcom about a US Marine who brings his Afghan interpreter to America.
“This is a real TV show. Actually made by human people. On Planet Earth. In 2021,” it read.
I watched the 30-second trailer and was horrified to see that the show — the first sitcom I knew of where a central character is from Afghanistan — seemed to rely on tired tropes about a hulking, heroic white man coming to the rescue of his bumbling brown sidekick. Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American author who serves an executive producer on the show, asked that we give the show a chance.
-Saeed Taji Farouky (@saeedtaji) March 19, 2021
“United States of Al” premieres April 1 on CBS. But as an Afghan-American journalist based in Kabul, I was recently invited to a Zoom screening of the pilot and 5th episode.
I tried to hold out hope it would be good. It wasn’t. In fact, the original tweet from Saeed Taji Farouky, an Arab-British filmmaker, was spot-on. Rather than bringing nuance to an Afghan-American pairing, the Chuck Lorre production is a show from another era: it’s all flat characters, and cheap, uninspired jokes.
It’s also a missed opportunity. The show tries to win points for putting Afghanistan at the center of a heavily-promoted mainstream sitcom, but then puts in none of the work.
It’s as if Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat and Rami, all of which offer interesting, funny observations about the lives of non-white protagonists, never happened, and Hollywood (or at least CBS) has learned nothing since I first arrived in the United States in the late-1980s.
To be clear, this is a sitcom and not a prestige TV treatise on cultural imperialism and post-Cold War politics — and it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. But as someone who will happily spend hours cycling through clips of Amy Farrah Fowler and Sheldon Cooper from Chuck Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory, this show is cringe.
Afghanistan is a real place with complex problems, many of which have been exacerbated by nearly four decades of invasions and interference by foreign powers. Among the things Al never says to this nice family in Ohio is that last year more than 3,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan. After the credits, we get a glance of Awalmir and Riley working together, or rather fleeing enemy fire in a Humvee through nondescript desert meant to be Helmand. It’s played for laughs as a wild bonding experience. But the truth is that for Afghan interpreters who worked alongside
US and NATO forces were seen locally as collaborators and became targets for the Taliban. Dreams that they would become refugees in America often didn’t materialize.
But here we’re told it’s Riley who heroically spent three years filling out paperwork to get Awalmir to America.
In a recent Clubhouse chat, my friend Mariam Wardak, an Afghan-American who splits her time between DC and Kabul, put it well: “Rather than showing Afghan interpreters as brave men who are putting their lives on the line and are risking being ostracized in their community, we have a short, scrawny awkward brown man standing next to this GI Joe.”
The first clue of what we were in for came with the pairing: Riley (Parker Young), the buff, tattooed, Marine, towers over Awalmir (Adhir Kalyan), the squat, skinny brown man with a funny accent. While Riley gets to flirty banter with an attractive female bartender, and show off his physique boxing in the garage, Awalmir plays the wide-eyed, non-threatening Asian man staring in wonder at the bounty of Cleveland’s grocery store aisles.
Then there’s the dialogue.
The pilot opens with Riley and his sister, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Alderfer), at an airport awaiting the titular character’s arrival to the United States. Riley passes the time telling the story of the time Al greeted Riley at an airport in Afghanistan with a bowl of pacha. (American troops don’t arrive in Afghanistan in this manner, but that’s perhaps for another time.)
Elizabeth, badly butchering the word, asks what pacha is. When Riley describes it as sheep’s head soup, Elizabeth is clearly revolted and the studio audience erupts in laughter. Personally, pacha is not my cup of tea. But surely, the writer’s room could have done better than tired jokes about weird, foreign foods.
The inane jokes continue. At one point, when Al recalls a memory from Kabul, Elizabeth makes a seemingly nonsensical reference to spring break, leading to an eventual punchline about confusing Kabul with Cabo. At another, Awalmir compares his awkward attempt to reunite Riley and his estranged wife to negotiating with warlords, and something about enemy fire in Helmand.
Now granted, it could be worse. Al is not a terrorist, unlike the Arab and Muslim characters who populated shows like 24 (which, by the way, aired on Afghan TV for years). When he prays, it is to find solace from his loneliness, not because he’s about to blow himself up.
As a friend of mine, who also attended the advance screening, said: “It’s a hell of a lot better than him being another Afghan terrorist on TV.”
But if you’re going to go to the trouble of making this show, and airing it on a network that has faced years of criticism for its white, homogeneous presentation of the world, why not endow Al with at least a smattering of complexity? If the creators had allowed Afghanistan to be a real place (and not just the vague origin story for another odd couple buddy comedy), have some faith that American viewers just might be able to follow along.
But, the worst part is that I desperately wanted this terrible show to be great.
You see, I grew up on sitcoms.
My family fled the Soviet occupation and ended up in Fremont, California, a city that would come to be known as ‘Little Kabul.’
As a kid, I would often sit on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, a bowl of cumin and saffron-scented palow in front of me, and follow the ups and downs of the home lives of the Winslows, the Taylors, the Bundys, the Banks and the Conners. It was my first introduction to what I thought was American life.
Most of my social interactions in Fremont were with my large, extended Afghan family. Even in school, all of my friends were Afghan, Arab, Desi, Filipino, or Latino. I would watch American sitcoms, wondering why the children had so few cousins around, why their homes were never full of dozens of family members gathering for a meal and, most importantly, what exactly meatloaf, fruit cakes and French toast were. These shows educated me on the lives of the ‘Amrikaya,’ as we called them.
Still, I longed for a TV show about people who sounded, acted and looked like me.
In college, I interned at the Center for Asian American Media, which ran the nation’s largest Asian-American film festival. Around the office, there was a lot of excitement about the coming Harold and Kumar sequel, and I was confused as to why a dumb stoner movie was receiving so much praise from the 20 and 30-something Filpino, Chinese, Korean and Japanese-Americans cinephiles I worked with.
“Because, Ali, it’s about them being dumb stoners, not a Korean and an Indian,” they said to me. I rewatched the first movie and saw their point. Yes, Harold and Kumar were Asian, but they were also American. And more importantly, John Cho went from just being “that Asian guy from American Pie” and Kal Penn from “that Indian guy in Van Wilder” to genuine stars.
Which brings me back to The United States of Al.
I’m back in Afghanistan, where I work as a journalist and spend a lot of my time trying to demonstrate to a global audience that people who come from here are just as compelling and layered as the Rileys and Elizabeths of Cleveland.
To be sure, I’m going to watch the rest of United States of Al.
And if it gets better, I’ll be the first to cheer it on.