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Since Mom premiered in 2013 and proved that a CBS multicam comedy could contain multitudes — or at least both broadly silly elements for the back row and a serious reflection on addiction — sitcom mogul Chuck Lorre has expanded his brand in the direction of more pointed, often dramatic shows.
One thing Lorre hasn’t changed, however, is his desire to have these new half-hours lead with the often-braying chuckles before maturing, forcing critics to suffer through tepid early installments of shows like Bob Hearts Abishola and B Positive before something more nuanced unfolds. And it usually does! Those are both good shows that blend complex tones and positive intentions.
AIR DATE Apr 01, 2021
For proof of the disservice this approach can do, look no further than United States of Al. The new comedy has been done no favors by either Lorre and the show’s creators or by CBS’ promotional team, which prompted a backlash campaign after releasing a series of NCAA Tournament-tied trailers that are, at most, barely representative of the show’s voice. So once again I’m stuck saying that if audiences stick with United States of Al through the four episodes sent to critics, they might start seeing a show that is surely well-meaning and aspires to admirable cultural understanding. But given that the beginning here is even bumpier than that of other recent Lorre shows, I really can’t recommend waiting around. Trying to be inoffensive is better than trying to be offensive, but it opens the door to its own kind of stereotyping and laziness.
Actually created by David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, United States of Al focuses on former Marine combat veteran Riley (Parker Young), who, after three years of effort, is finally able to secure a travel visa for his Afghan translator Awalmir (Adhir Kalyan), called “Al” by all and sundry. Al saved Riley’s life repeatedly and he’s greeted with reverence by Riley’s tough-as-nails dad, Art (Dean Norris); his sarcastic sister, Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer); his estranged wife, Vanessa (Kelli Goss); and their daughter, Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie). Finding himself in Ohio after a lifetime in Afghanistan leads to lots of fish-out-of-water culture shock for Al, who’s about to discover that all of the members of his new American clan are harboring wounds and traumas of their own.
If you stay with United States of Al through three episodes, you’ll see that it’s in many ways aspiring to be a (less funny) version of Parker Young’s still-much-loved Fox series Enlisted, with a comparable empathy for the challenges faced by returning veterans and their families. Young is an expert at playing this sort of amiable manchild, and the show achieves considerable complexity when it comes to depicting Riley’s refusal to get counseling and the destructive impact that has on his marriage and future. He has good chemistry with Alderfer, who, after scene-stealing on Lorre’s Disjointed and recent seasons of A.P. Bio, is probably ready for a vehicle showcasing a persona I’d describe as “Live-action Daria.” Alderfer’s scenes with Art in the third episode, in a subplot related to Lizzie’s own grief and a metal detector, are the series’ best, helping Norris find the right volume for his character after two episodes of nonstop shouting in Archie Bunker mode.
The show’s problem — and this is particularly troublesome, given the early controversy — is Al.
The first point that has to be emphasized, especially with the tenor of the ads CBS cut for the show, is that everybody on the writing staff — which includes several Afghans and Afghan Americans — has taken pains to make sure the jokes are basically never directed at Al. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, but the punchlines focus on the need for the Americans to listen and learn more. Still, is it funny when Lizzie asks if the language they speak in Afghanistan is “Afghanistanish”? No! It is not! The persistent comic framework here is that while Afghans may play a sport using goat corpses and eat things that confuse our American tastebuds, it’s much more important to acknowledge the integral role they have played in our long-running war and how badly we’ve failed in helping the civilians who helped us. It’s a similar “Let’s start our story about how immigrants make America great by centering the Americans in need of magical immigrant intervention” approach to the one Bob Hearts Abishola relied on in its first few episodes.
In smoothing out all of Al’s edges, the show basically turns him into a nondescript collection of model minority tropes. He’s hyper-respectful and hyper-patriotic. There are moments of specificity to his religious and cultural identity, but the show always stops at “explaining” rather than “exploring” those details. And even though Al is presumptively funny — a lot of the things the trailers suggest are jokes on the character are, in fact, the character’s attempts to tell jokes — that isn’t a personality, and it’s in this sea of vagueness that the writing staff consistently goes adrift.
Take, for example, a second-episode plot in which Al’s encyclopedic knowledge of driving is undermined at his license exam by a female examiner wearing shorts. The cartoonish treatment of his stuttering discomfort is still infinitely better than the way Raj was treated for the entirety of The Big Bang Theory, and the takeaway ends up being much more than just a lesson about ultra-religious views on sexuality. But what people are going to remember will be, “Ha ha, the Muslim got so freaked out by legs that he backed into a tree.” At every opportunity, United States of Al leads with the all-caps version of the joke and hopes you’ll pay enough attention to hear the grace notes. It’s asking both too much and too little of the audience.
That Al is the least interesting, least developed character in a show that bears his name does no favors for Kalyan, who played a better version of nearly the same archetype on The CW’s Aliens in America (though that character was Pakistani). Should United States of Al have found an Afghan or Afghan American for the lead? Probably, which isn’t to say that a performance with more consistent accent work or a more direct connection to the ethnicity or nationality being portrayed would have worked either. Kalyan’s choices aren’t funny, nor are the writers’ choices for Al. It’s a bad mixture.
Nothing is really funny in the pilot, and I was three or four episodes into United States of Al before I began to see where the good show was here. Unfortunately, it’s the one built around Young, Norris and Alderfer. So what you have is a series that isn’t nearly as bad or as offensive as knee-jerk Twitter reactions suggested, but also a series with an Afghan protagonist who isn’t played by an Afghan actor and a series that would probably be better without that character entirely. That’s bad in its own way.
Cast: Adhir Kalyan, Parker Young, Dean Norris, Elizabeth Alderfer, Kelli Goss and Farrah Mackenzie
Creators: David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari
Airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS starting April 1.
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