United States of Al, Season 2, Episode 1 Review

A mediocre freshman sitcom that was renewed by CBS largely based on the clout of its legendary producer, Chuck Lorre, finds the opportunity to redeem itself in the surprisingly serious and dramatic Season 2 premiere.

For those of you who don't know the sitcom's premise - and there was a lot of confused reaction on social media last night about the nature of the show ("Is this a sitcom?") - USofAl follows the brother in arms story of an American Marine, Riley (Parker Young) who manages to get his best friend, his Afghan interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan) out of Afghanistan and into a garage apartment in Ohio after battling three years of red tape to get a Special Immigrants Visa which was created to help U.S. allies to leave the country. The stranger-in-a-strange-land sitcom largely works with the chemistry between the two actors, though the first season faced criticism about accents, cultural representation which the showrunners pushed back noting that their writers include Afghan and Afghan-Americans.

To be charitable, even before the fall of Afghanistan, this was a tough premise for a sitcom. As a mid-season replacement, it seemed as if USofAl struggled with its 13 episodes to find a consistent tone.

When real life events caught up with the show, producers scrapped the original Season 2 opener and got CBS to agree to let them tell their characters' stories as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.  In the episode, purposely entitled "Promises." Al, Riley and his family are glued to their phones as they try to virtually shepherd Al's sister, Hassina, through the Kabul airport to catch one of the few remaining flights out. As the final week of Afghanistan counts down, we see Al and Riley stress together, support each other, and work their phones as they figure out paths and contact old Marine buddies for Hassina to get through the crowd. Al and Riley do not sleep all week as they wait for word on her progress. 

The episode is tensely constructed, with the days and hours counting down like a bomb detonator. We don't know if Hassina will make it or not. We're told in flashbacks that Hassina is a proud modern Afghan woman who is studying to be a doctor. Through the brevity of a half hour comedy, we get a very personal story so it's all the more poignant when Al weeps for the fate of his country.

Next week, the sitcom laugh track is supposed to be back, but USofAL has set a high bar for itself, to be able to write about a serious topic like war and refugees without going for the cheap laughs. Will the show end up being "Hogan's Heroes" or M.A.S.H.?

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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