The Season 2 premiere of “United States of Al” airs this Thursday with a plot centered around America’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation efforts that came with it. For veterans who served in Afghanistan like me, it’s heavy watching for a sitcom, but a spoonful of comedic sugar just might help America’s medicine go down.
My wife and I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms. The problem with “situational” comedy is that a lot of those situations are almost carbon-copied from one show to the next, and now if you’ve seen one sitcom, you’ve seen them all. Plus, most military movies and shows miss on key details that make veterans scream, “What did they pay their military advisor?! — Because it’s too much!” Between our distaste for sitcoms and my likely ruining the show every five minutes or so with errors I noticed, “United States of Al” didn’t stand much of a chance to make it into our rotation. That is, until things began deteriorating in Afghanistan…
In light of unfolding world events and talking to some former interpreters myself for work, we decided to give the show a chance, and we were glad we did.
The pilot for “United States of Al” starts with Marine combat veteran Riley (played by Parker Young) waiting at the airport for Awalmir — or “Al” (played by Adhir Kalyan) — his interpreter and friend who he served with and is making his way to America to start a new life. He is moving into a house in Ohio with Riley; Riley’s father, Art (Dean Norris), and Riley’s sister, Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer), whose husband was killed in combat in Afghanistan.
The show had my interest in the first few minutes for one particular reason: Where so many sitcoms make the mistake of beating you over the head with stereotypes and clumsy character development, “United States of Al” just lets you ease into the plot and experience the characters’ personalities as the story unfolds. I was frankly shocked to not hear a lot of cringe-worthy, over-the-top military jargon to make damn sure you knew that Riley was a Marine (“oorah!”).
The characters feel believable and aren’t forced. Perhaps I should disclose my potential bias, being a Marine who struggled to adjust back to civilian life, myself. That said, I’m also a pretty harsh critic, and I find Riley to be a relatable and fair representation of the recently-separated veteran, and I’ll give credit where it’s due in that the show addresses that issue thoroughly. The show also gets high marks for illustrating the importance of the service member/ interpreter relationship, and how tight that bond can be.
Related: Exclusive: Spec Ops Vets on why we must save Afghan Interpreters
The “fish out of water” trope is obviously a fairly tired and common one in sitcoms, but one that is unavoidable in the case of Al. The show’s writers of Afghan and other Middle Eastern descent have stated that it is very important to them to reach both audiences (veteran and immigrant) and gain their trust. It’s a fine line to walk, and as I see it, Al is not as much a stereotype as he is just idealistic and virtuous.
As Riley’s best friend, he is often Riley’s conscience. His propensity to be a peacemaker (part of what made him so good at his job as an interpreter) is evident in the very first episode, when he learns that Riley and his wife, Vanessa (Kelli Goss), have separated, and Al forces them into a sit down that Vanessa only agrees to because Al’s positivity and magnetism win her over.
As the writers have noted, a lot of damage has been done to the Middle Eastern image in the media over the years. Whether his character has enough depth in season one or not, the writers’ painting of a strong and loveable Al, all while putting him in situations that will make people laugh, too (it’s a situational comedy, after all), has to be recognized as a step in the right direction. And season two also seems bound for a much deeper look at Al.
Related: No Better Friend: The kindness in Kabul is worth remembering
Of course, the chaos and tragedy that befell Afghanistan this summer all occurred well after season one was filmed. The writers have a unique opportunity wrapped in a daunting challenge, to now tell not only the story of Afghan immigrants in the United States, but now the plight of the Afghan people in general. Based on season one and an early screening of the season two premiere, I trust that the team at “United States of Al” is going to be able to capture that.
As seen in the trailer above, the episode begins with Riley and Al receiving news that Herat has fallen to the Taliban (unthinkable only weeks before) and they are closing in on Kabul. Al’s sister, Hassina, as well as the rest of his family, is still in Afghanistan. Hassina is of particular concern because she has been working for the United Nations for the past eight years and would be a target for the Taliban.
The rest of the episode centers around the family trying to keep it together through the sleepless nights and palpable tension as the bad news keeps rolling in, all while they work together to try and find a way out for Hassina. The team at “United States of Al” wrote the episode as everything was unfolding in Kabul, and they did not know how it would end.
“It is as much the story of our ‘work family’ as it is the story of our characters.”–CBS Press release about the episode
One particular scene from the upcoming premiere resonated with me. Riley walks into the garage where Vanessa is doing laundry:
Vanessa: You’ve had a week, haven’t ya?
Riley: Not as bad as Al’s.
Vanessa: It’s not a contest…
Related: Former SEAL and CIA officer on what comes next for US, post-Afghanistan
Riley then turns on the TV and is incensed by a media talking head going on about the injuries on the Cleveland Browns, rather than covering what is happening in Afghanistan. Vanessa does what she can to calm him down. That brief dialogue and the rage Riley felt both hit me like a ton of bricks. I experienced both over the last couple of months, so I can tell anyone who hasn’t, that scene is very real. I will never forget how disgusted I was to see Afghanistan buried beneath headlines about political bickering and whatever Kelly Clarkson is doing nowadays.
And that is the point. While “United States of Al” faces the challenge of telling an emotionally charged story framed in a comedy, they are also up against America’s short attention span. I hope that we can, as Americans, force ourselves to be a little uncomfortable and shoulder even a little bit of the pain of the 20-year war coming to an end the way it did, not to mention the unfathomable hell so many Afghan families are going through. I hope the timing of this episode and this season as a whole is just right to keep the situation in Afghanistan in the American consciousness. It’s a story that needs to be heard.
If the images from Kabul are still too fresh in your memory, perhaps just start with season one, which is not only the more logical starting point, but much lower-impact. This may all seem easy to say coming from a guy who hasn’t been in uniform in years now — but, as Vanessa says, it’s not a competition.
Some might not be ready to deal with Afghanistan yet, and I fully understand that. I almost feel silly saying it, but this sitcom really got to me a couple of times. But if what Afghanistan evokes in you is merely discomfort, rather than genuine pain, I recommend that everyone give it a watch.
The Season 2 premiere of “United States of Al,” “Promises/ Wadaha,” airs this Thursday, October 7, at 8:30 PM ET and PT.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
- Iran and Russia poised to fill America’s void in Afghanistan
- Former SEAL & CIA officer on how US operations in Afghanistan will continue
- The Panjshir Railroad: A covert action blueprint to continue evacuations from Afghanistan
- The first special ops mission deep inside Afghanistan just weeks after 9/11, from troops who were there
- Rangers vs. SEALs: Who’s had more impact in War on Terror?
Feature image: Chuck Lorre Productions/ Warner Bros. Television
I’ve noticed that CBS sitcoms are back to addressing tough topics, from Afghanistan, to transitioning to civilian life, to race relations and reparations, but they’re taking a moderate approach and trying to be realistic. Hopefully this works. Having watched this sitcom, it can very easily fall apart if they writers and producers aren’t careful.