Entertainment

Now Is a Really Bad Time to Air a Sitcom About an Afghan Interpreter for the US Military

After a rerun of the show was pulled this week, the future of ‘United States of Al’ is looking uncertain.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
August 20, 2021, 1:00pm
Screen Shot 2021-08-19 at 3
Screenshot via CBS YouTube 

On Monday night at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS viewers expected to see a rerun of United States of Al, the show executive-produced by Chuck Lorre about a U.S. marine named Riley and his Afghan interpreter, Awalmir, adjusting to civilian life in America. Instead, viewers got a rerun of Bob Hearts Abishola, another Chuck Lorre-produced show about a white “compression sock businessman” who falls in love with his nurse after being hospitalized for a heart attack. Many people probably did not notice that United States of Al did not air, given the real-life events occurring on Monday and the days prior: After years of U.S. military occupation, the Taliban was in the process of capturing cities across Afghanistan, and the Internet was flooded with images of citizens of the country trying to flee to safety.

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Given the already shaky reputation of the show, which has proved controversial for papering over a war that killed over 70,000 Afghan civilians, it is difficult to imagine United States of Al airing alongside the real-life images of horror that were coming out of Afghanistan, including photos of Afghans desperately chasing a transport plane departing from Hamid Karzai international Airport and trying to hang onto the outside, with three people falling to their death from hundreds of feet in the air. This was no time for comedy, and the show’s treatment of America’s relationship with Afghanistan has certainly been cringe-inducingly tone-deaf at times, if not flat-out offensive: In one scene, which aired in April, Riley explains the Burning Man festival as a bunch of Americans setting a place on fire and then leaving. Al jokingly asks if Riley is trying to make him homesick. 

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for CBS told VICE that it had decided to pull the rerun “out of sensitivity to current events.” The spokesperson did not respond to questions as to how the show plans to address the current chaos in Afghanistan, or if the show would continue as planned. Still, the pulled episode raised a question: Can a light comedic TV show that touches on the war in Afghanistan exist at the same time as these events? 

If you like The Big Bang Theory, but wish it was set in the backdrop of America’s longest war, you’d be hard-pressed to find a show that better fits this criteria. (A sample of dialogue: “Make up your mind! Are you a Muslim or are you Jewish?” Riley’s father asks when he hears Al doesn’t eat pork.) The show has already been widely criticized for a number of reasons, ranging from casting to the entire premise. For example, Al is played by Adhir Kalyan, a South African actor of Indian descent. One real-life Afghan interpreter, Hakimi Quadratullah, called the show “funny and realistic” but also noted to Military Times, “They could have done a better job with finding the actor with maybe more of an Afghan or Persian accent.”

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The aesthetic of the show—easy-watching, with quippy dialogue—will be familiar to anyone who has watched one of the many shows executive-produced by Chuck Lorre. The Big Bang Theory, The Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon, Two and a Half Men, and many other successful programs that were executive produced by Lorre follow this template. United States of Al was also created by Maria Ferrari and David Goetsch, two writers from The Big Bang Theory. If ratings are the judge, it’s a formula that works, though it’s probably not the best fit for unpacking issues like the war in Afghanistan and a drawn-out military conflict in which the U.S. government withheld evidence of its own futility

Though Al is the namesake of the show, he is a relatively one-dimensional character, one that has been called “cursory representation” and a “caricature” by multiple outlets. One review called Al an “unthreatening, sexless, subservient presence in Riley's home,” a character reminiscent of Raj, the Indian guy on The Big Bang Theory who was so terrified of women he literally did not speak to them. 

Other material criticisms of the show center around its premise of an Afghan interpreter serving as a hybrid guru-slash-clown, one whose main role seems to be to tease out the complexity of other characters. One executive producer, the Iranian-American writer and religious scholar Reza Azlan, defended the show by noting the presence of Afghan actors and writing staff, and said he was using United States of Al to reframe perceptions of Afghans and Muslims. 

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Still, the AI character is understandably disappointing for people of Afghan descent who have long been denied seeing their experience reflected back to them onscreen in any meaningful way. And the show’s premise also lends itself to a surface-level, and at worst, nationalistic understanding of the historical events it ostensibly seeks to illuminate. The Middle East Research and Information Project called it ”the fog of the forever war with a laugh track,” in which the American viewers cannot possibly fathom “the legacy of US militarism abroad and its ensuing human and financial fallout at home and globally” in neat 22-minute capsules.

But the show doesn’t just simplify the situation abroad; it also simplifies the experiences of real-life Afghan individuals who find themselves in Al’s position. In some moments, the show seems to grapple with this tension. A speech from United States of Al has been quoted in a Senate Judiciary Committee, and it is a perfect explanation of the difficulty the show faces. “[T]here is nothing funny about the seventeen thousand Afghan interpreters still waiting for Visas which were promised to them,” AI says. “When we decided to join the U.S. Forces, we were not only risking our own lives, we were putting the lives of our families in danger.”

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Following the news of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the two stars of the show filmed a PSA in May to draw attention to Nooneleft.org, a veteran-run nonprofit focused on acquiring special immigrant visas for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. It’s a process that often takes years if it happens at all, and there are now over 70,000 interpreters and refugees seeking to flee the country.

In light of the developments in Afghanistan, parts of the show feel prescient, while others are unsettling. In one episode, Al has a heated argument with Ariana, an Afghan woman he’s courting. Ariana tells him that she sees Afghan interpreters like Al as sellouts who aided foreign invading forces. “Almost every monster Afghanistan faces, the American government created,” Ariana says, adding that American troops are “handing the country back to the Taliban and walking away.” 

In another episode, Al sits for dinner with Riley’s family. When Riley asks about Al’s family, he replies, “They are safer now, Inshallah” because they are in Kabul. On August 15, the Afghan capital was taken over by the Taliban

Season 2 of United States of Al is scheduled to premiere on October 7. As the Taliban establishes its dominance of the country, can we in good faith continue to watch a show that is incapable of registering the full complexity of the situation? Can a multi-camera sitcom incorporate the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan into a neat subplot? Will the show turn into a full-on PSA, asking the U.S. government to accept as many Afghan refugees as possible, since America created them? 

At the end of the day, even the most valid concerns about a show like United States of Al will always pale in comparison to the images of real human suffering we’re seeing from the ground in Afghanistan. When October rolls around, there will still be “current events” going on, and the disparity between this sitcom and reality will likely be even more stark. You can see real-life horror, or you can watch a weird pro-military fictional sitcom. It’s difficult to do both.