Chuck Lorre's New CBS Sitcom Slammed for Handling of Afghan Character

AL Adhir Kalyan and Parker Young in 'The United States of Al'
CBS

'The United States of Al'

A new CBS sitcom is coming under fire for its handling of an Afghan character.

The Big Bang Theory producer Chuck Lorre's latest – midseason series United States of Al – is being criticized for casting a non-Afghan actor in its titular role, and for the character's depiction in general, while one of the show's executive producers has issued a staunch defense.

The uproar was seemingly sparked by the show's official trailer, which first debuted online a couple weeks ago but ignited a controversy that had Lorre trending over the weekend. The show is framed as a warm-hearted comedy about the friendship between a Marine combat veteran (Parker Young) struggling to readjust to civilian life in Ohio, and his Afghan interpreter, Awalmir (Adhir Kalyan), who served with his unit and has just arrived to start a new life in America.

Some have slammed the show as being offensive, such as Qasim Rashid, a human rights lawyer, author and a former candidate for Congress, who tweeted, "This is so ridiculous and offensive I don't have the words to express just how terribly bad this is on every conceivable level."

Writer Rekha Shankar tweeted, "Can someone tell Chuck Lorre that 'what if a white person liked a brown person' is not a tv show concept."

Palestinian documentary filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky (Tell Spring Not to Come) marveled, "This is a real TV show. Actually made by human people. On Planet Earth. In 2021."

And Broadway singer-actor Pia Glenn issued a series of critiques, leading with, "I remember hearing about this when it was in development & thinking NAH...surely someone will stop this from going into production. [...] It truly is Chuck Lorre. Plus America's general disdain for comedy that's smart, cutting edge, & maybe not shockingly racist and/or otherwise offensive."

Sana Saeed, a host for AJ+, also criticized the sitcom for "romanticizing occupation forces and the relationships they build along the way."

Glenn, among others, particularly singled out the fact that Awalmir isn't played by an Afghan actor (Kalyan was born in South Africa to an Indian South African family).

One of the show's executive producers, Reza Aslan, responded to the criticism on Saturday, tweeting, "Maybe learn a little about the show, its creators, it’s [sic] producers, it’s [sic] four Afghan writers, it’s [sic] plot, and pretty much everything else before you announce your opinion of it. Just a thought," and also, "Because it’s my show I can make sure that it is written and produced by Afghans and Muslims. That it uses the format to reframe the perception that people have of both. That it portrays a Muslim Afghan protagonist in a true and honest light." He also challenged, "Fun fact: you haven’t seen it so can’t really comment from a place of knowledge now can you?"

As for social media criticism of the show portraying a positive relationship between an Afghan military interpreter and a Marine combat veteran, Aslan said "There are dozens and dozens of Afghan interpreters living with US soldiers. We know cause we actually spoke to them. This is literally their story."

A New York University researcher and author, Arash Azizi, likewise seemed to defend the casting, tweeting, "Adhir Kalyan is an Indian-South African actor born in apartheid South Africa. In 2021 America, he is told he can’t play characters outside his own 'race'. I guess he is familiar with this Apartheid thinking?"

This isn't the first time a CBS sitcom has come under fire for its handling of minority characters. The series 2 Broke Girls was widely slammed for its content until it was canceled in 2017 after six seasons, and Lorre's 12-season megahit Big Bang Theory was occasionally criticized along the same lines. Yet Lorre's 2019 series, Bob (Hearts) Abishola, largely won acclaim for its central depiction of an interracial relationship.

CBS and Lorre had no immediate comment. The United States of Al premieres April 1, 2021.

Sharareh Drury contributed to this report.