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They all thought they’d have more time.
It was Thursday, Aug. 12. The producers and writers of United States of Al, the CBS sitcom about Riley, a U.S. combat veteran who has brought his Afghan interpreter Awalmir, aka Al, to live with him in Ohio, were sitting down to discuss plot lines for season two.
Season one of the show premiered April 1, just two weeks before President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan. It was clear — to co-creators Maria Ferrari and Dave Goetsch, and to the show’s team of writers, which includes five Afghans and seven military veterans — that the impact of that decision would be a focus of season two.
“We understood that, with the American withdrawal, things were going to get bad,” says Reza Aslan, an executive producer and writer on the show. “We had already written scripts, already shot scripts that had that in the background.”
But the news got ahead of them. The Taliban’s military offensive, which had begun in May, picked up pace. City after city, provincial capital after provincial capital, fell to the Islamic militants. By Thursday, the Taliban were advancing on the capital, Kabul.
“We had a call on Thursday to say: ‘Let’s meet on Monday and figure out how we want to respond to this.’ By Monday, the city had already fallen,” recalls Mahyad Tousi, another United States of Al EP. “It forced us, the writers and the rest of the staff, especially the Afghans, to figure out, ‘All right, how do we do this? How do we respond?'”
Like many of the show’s Afghan and Afghan American staffers, story editor Ursula Taherian still had family in Afghanistan that she was trying to get out. “Those first few days, that first week, well it was like a situation room, a war room,” she says.
“Everyone was on their phones making calls, calling family, calling the military, calling anyone who could help,” adds Miriam Arghandiwal, a writer’s assistant whose sister-in-law was struggling to reach the Kabul airport after the Taliban seized the city. “They called [former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan] General Petraeus. Nothing was working.”
Watching what was happening around them, the show’s producers knew this story, the story of the evacuation, was the one United States of Al needed to tell. If they could do it justice, that is.
“I was hesitant because the most important thing happening was that our staff was super traumatized,” Ferrari admits. “You’d never ask someone who had just lost a loved one to help you write a script about what it was like to lose a loved one.”
Habib Zahori, an Afghan journalist who works as a story editor on United States of Al, spent the week after the fall of Kabul jockeying between conference calls with the writers room in Burbank (he lives in Ottawa) and frantic messaging with his family in Afghanistan.
“It was the worst week of my life. And I’ve lived through some horrible periods, through the war in Afghanistan, through the first period of Taliban rule,” Zahori says. “[But] I thought it was my ethical responsibility to make sure that this story gets told, and that it gets told as realistically as possible.”
Realism, however, proved a challenge. United States of Al is a brightly lit, joke-heavy, 22-minute, multicamera network sitcom. Not exactly a format designed to tackle the life-and-death situations the show’s writers were experiencing in real time.
“We’re doing a comedy sitcom in a comedy block, on a network, on a Thursday night,” says Tousi. “There was no blueprint for this.”
Ferrari and Goetsch met with Chuck Lorre, an executive producer on United States of Al and, as the creator of CBS hits Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, one of the most powerful figures in network television.
“He was 100 percent in and he said: ‘Let me call the president of CBS and give them the heads up, tell them this is what we want to do,'” recalls Ferrari. “He cleared the path.”
“He said, ‘Just tell the story. No laugh track. This is not about the jokes,'” adds Goetsch.
Instead, the season opener of United States of Al, which premieres on CBS on Thursday — the 20th anniversary of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan — is unlike anything the show or any network sitcom has done before. The episode follows Al’s long-distance struggles to get his sister out of Kabul and to relative safety in Turkey. Every detail, from Al using Google Maps to track his sister’s progress, to Riley getting her to wave an orange scarf to attract the attention of a U.S. marine at airport security, came directly from real-life.
“It’s exactly what I went through to get my sister and family out,” says Zahori, who, with help from Chase Millsap, a U.S. vet and military consultant on the show, managed to evacuate 11 people, including his three siblings.
Zahori says it is still difficult for him to watch the episode now, two months after his family escaped.
“I get mentally transported back to those moments when I was helping my siblings to push through the crowd in front of the airport,” he says. “There was a moment when my sisters and my brother were trying to get in, and my sister, my older sister, called me. ‘I just saw a woman get shot in the face,’ she said. ‘She was standing right beside me.’ I was the one that told them to go to that gate. What if it had been my sister instead of that woman?”
The episode, like the show’s entire first season, is careful to avoid political punditry or polarization, with the focus squarely on Al’s personal situation and on his friendship with Riley. “We’re storytellers, not activists,” notes Tousi. “The show has always been about the best impulses of the American public.”
But Tousi believes it is significant that the show’s new season is airing now, when the budget crisis and debt ceiling debate in Congress have replaced news of Kabul and Kandahar on the nation’s front pages.
“Afghanistan may not be in the headlines, but as we speak, there are tens of thousands of Afghan refugees on military bases or on their way to communities all around this country,” he notes, “and for many Americans the only stories they will hear about these refugees, their only connection to them, will come either from Fox News or from the United States of Al.”
Adds Taherian, “There is a growing anti-refugee movement happening right now. So I really hope that by showing our story and it just being about human beings being the opposite of anything political, that it will help counter that hysteria.”
The title of the season two premiere is Promises. For Hila Hamidi, one of the show’s coordinating producers, who was unable to get her family members out of Afghanistan before the U.S. military left, it is particularly poignant.
“Personally, I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed at the fact that I didn’t fulfill the promise that I made to my own family,” she says. “The least we could do is welcome this exodus of Afghans with open arms. As the daughter of Afghan refugees, I hope by elevating these stories through this show, it will soften the hearts of people who need it most.”
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