‘United States of Al’ Wants to Be Likable, Forgets to Be Interesting: TV Review

Here’s a complete list of things we learn about Awalmir, or “Al,” in the first four episodes of the new show ostensibly about him: Al (Adhir Kalyan) is a friendly Afghan translator. Al loves qorma-e-sabzi (an Afghan spinach stew), his mother, sister, countless cousins, and best American friend Riley (Parker Young), a former Marine who retained Al’s services while stationed in Afghanistan. Al is extremely respectful of everyone he meets, though he can also be competitive. A devout Muslim, Al had never seen a woman’s bare legs before meeting his driving test administrator in Ohio. End of list.

“United States of Al,” premiering April 1 on CBS, is the latest sitcom from Chuck Lorre Productions that both seems to anticipate possible criticisms and walk right into the traps that would inspire them. Created by “The Big Bang Theory” alumni David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, and executive produced by Reza Aslan and Mahyad Tousi, “United States of Al” takes pains to humanize its Middle Eastern leading man — though Kalyan himself, while clearly well-versed in the sitcom rhythms required of this multi-cam production, is notably, and noticeably, of South Asian descent. Al quickly endears himself to Riley’s entire family, including his wild card sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer), ex Vanessa (Kelli Goss), daughter Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie) and cantankerous father, Art (an especially growly Dean Norris). Riley trusts Al with his life, and vice versa.

Making a classic “odd couple” out of an American veteran and his trusted Afghan translator is an interesting idea to mine out of a very real phenomenon coming out of an endless war, if a much more complex dynamic than this multi-cam sitcom can reasonably capture. While Al is thrilled to be out of Afghanistan to the point that Riley’s Ohioan suburb might as well be Disneyland, the show does let them both acknowledge some of the harsh realities that brought them together in the first place, even if mostly in the form of clumsy jokes about the cost of American imperialism. At one point, for instance, Al looks at a juice box named “Sunrise Surprise” and remarks that “if it tastes like waking up to American troops banging at your door, it’s well-named.” It seems that Al is allowed to mention the havoc American troops wreaked on his country, but only if it’s toothless enough to inspire a disarming jolt of a canned laugh.

Despite the show’s obvious efforts otherwise, the unfortunate fact remains that Al is the show’s least-defined character even though he’s supposed to be the star. As Al quickly learns in his self-appointed role as the family’s resident conflict mediator, everyone else in this series has specific, fraught histories that give their individual stories drive. Art is trying to keep the family together as its sole head. Riley is adrift without the structure of the Marines, especially now that he and Vanessa have separated. Lizzie’s binge drinking and tastefully pink-hued hair are products of grief for her fiancé, another member of the army who died in a helicopter crash. Even Hazel admits (after some quality time with her godfather Al) that she’s struggling to adjust to Riley being back after he’d been deployed for most of her life. But Al himself doesn’t get much of anything beyond what was outlined above. He’s just a chipper harbinger of joy and reason, who patiently explains to a puzzled Hazel that he’s living in Riley’s garage because “it was the only bed offered to me when I got to this country, so I took it, and I said thank you. Because I know how to be grateful for what I have.”

Ever since a trailer for “United States of Al” went viral last week for all the wrong reasons, producers have been vehement in their defense of it as a comedy that can humanize Afghans for skeptical Americans, changing the hearts and minds of the wide-reaching CBS broadcast audience. Aslan in particular pointed to the show’s efforts to hire Afghan writers and actors — though again, not including its star — before imploring skeptical viewers to tune in for an entire episode instead of a 30-second clip. This is a fair ask, and one that I took up in good faith. But four episodes in, “United States of Al” didn’t warm my heart as much as it deeply bummed me out.

On a very basic level, it’s nice that Al is a kind, sweet man who genuinely wants the best for everyone around him. Middle Eastern TV characters, as the well-meaning team behind “United States of Al” well knows, have too often been caricatures or terrorists who barely get much consideration beyond a single episode, let alone their own shows. But “Al” is a Middle Eastern caricature of a different kind than the evil ones who became ubiquitous onscreen after 9/11. Instead, Al is a textbook Good Immigrant with few discernible wants or needs of his own beyond making skittish white Americans comfortable.

To Riley and his family, Al is something between a court jester and a fairy godfather, making them laugh, reflect and feel good. His purpose throughout the first four episodes isn’t to figure out his own life but everyone else’s. There’s no saying what would happen if he were anything less than perfectly pleasant, because at least in this early going of the show, Al is never anything less than perfectly pleasant.

This characterization wouldn’t have been particularly revolutionary in 2007 let alone 2021, but here Al is, gamely chipping away at white people’s skepticism of him by the power of sheer enthusiasm.

“United States of Al” clearly wants to do right by Al, and all the real Als in Afghanistan who inspired him — but doing that requires way more than mere inclusion. It would require actually centering Al in his own show instead of putting Al at the center of everyone else’s problems. It would mean giving the other Afghan characters more to do than briefly react to Al’s new American life over FaceTime, as is all they do in the first four episodes. It would mean acknowledging the thornier aspects of Al and Riley’s relationship, forged in firefights, beyond glancing mentions. It would mean letting Al have actual flaws, just like Riley, Lizzie, and Art. Whether or not “United States of Al” figures these balances out going forward, it shouldn’t take this long to make its main Middle Eastern character less of a platonic ideal and more of a human being.

“United States of Al” premieres Thursday, April 1 at 8:30 pm on CBS.

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