Rediscovering United States of Al


Last April, CBS debuted THE UNITED STATES OF AL, an unlikely comedy from producer powerhouse Chuck Lorre (TWO AND A HALF MEN, YOUNG SHELDON, BIG BANG THEORY) with an unusual premise.  A Marine who served in Afghanistan applies for his interpreter to join him in the U.S.  After a three year long battle with bureaucracy, the Marine finally succeeds in getting him a visa and welcomes his friend to his Cleveland, Ohio home and family where the two best friends sleep in the garage.

Even with middling ratings and reviews, CBS decided to renew USoAL for a second season.

Starring Adhir Kalyan (RULES OF ENGAGEMENT) as Afghan interpreter, Al, and Parker Young as Marine Riley, USoAL is worth revisiting not because it's a great show but because it has now collided into historic events with the fall of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan interpreters and their families now very much in the news.

USoAL was criticized for casting a South-African-born Indian actor with a poor Afghan accent.  The show producers responded that the show has two Afghan-American and one Afghan writer, as well as two Iranian-American producers. They also argued that the show's development included extensive interviews with Afghan refugees and U.S. veterans. 

Still, having binged through Season 1, it's a challenge for the show to balance a thoughtful comedy about two brothers in arms without ending up more like a fish out of water comedy like, oh, anyone remember PERFECT STRANGERS or MORK AND MINDY?  Al's Muslim faith and Afghan culture and traditions are treated respectfully, which makes it tough to milk sitcom yucks even though there are regular jokes about Afghan food.

What works? The core friendship chemistry between Al and Riley is going to make or break this show. Although the first few episodes were predictable (Al: "In my country, the father is always right!") and the hunky Parker Young takes his shirt of a couple times, the show was just starting to get its groove, balancing some serious issues in a family friendly comedy.  The square jawed Parker Young is always fun to watch - he was the very funny frat boy bro in the sadly short-lived comedy, SUBURGATORY - and he seems perfectly cast in USoAL, especially as his character goes through his own post-Afghanistan demons like alcoholism as well as tinnitus and a growing list of injuries he's too proud to apply for VA benefits.

What doesn't work? The writers don't have a firm grip on the secondary characters. We have a good cast with little to do. Riley's dad, Art (BREAKING BAD's Dean Norris), Elizabeth Alderfer as Riley's sister Lizzie, Kelli Goss as Riley's estranged wife Vanessa, and Farrah Mackenzie as Riley and Vanessa's daughter. So far, these characters are around just to hold their noses at Afghan food or make jokes about Riley's past. While one episode had Al frozen in shock at seeing a woman's bare legs, he doesn't seem to have any problems with Riley's sister in the house. 

But it's Adhir Kalyan who has to make the audience care about Al. And this is where history and current events will make the second season of USoAL especially challenging.  In the show, Al waited three years for his visa to come to America to escape the Taliban. There are references made to the U.S. visa program being slow and bureaucratic. Riley promises that he won't give up applying for the rest of Al's family to follow.  So how will the show writers handle the situation in Afghanistan today? Will Al's relatives make it out? Or will the show steer into more serious waters with a new Taliban government locking down the borders? Current events have opened up new possibilities.

One of the best episodes of USoAL was Episode 8 "Roht" when Al and Riley's family search for an Afghan restaurant outside of Cleveland that makes 'roht' - an Afghan sweetbread. At the restaurant, Al is smitten by the owner's daughter, but when she finds out he was an interpreter for the U.S. Marines, she calls him a traitor to Afghanistan.  It's a serious confrontation that's eye-opening, poignant and a hint to us sitting comfortably in North America what might await the interpreters desperately trying to get a flight out of Kabul. And suddenly USoAL steers into Norman Lear territory, a sitcom with serious social commentary.

UNITED STATES OF AL returns on October 7.

If you're in the U.S., you can watch some episodes here:

Show trailer:

Harrison Cheung is the author of the award-winning biography of Christian Bale (BenBella Books) and a contributor to Brave New Hollywood and The TV Ratings Guide.

@harrisonic (Twitter)

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