Chuck Lorre’s “United States of Al” is trying very hard. Maybe a little too hard.
The new CBS sitcom (premiering Thursday, 8:30 EDT/PDT, ★★ out of four), about the friendship between an ex-Marine and his unit’s Afghan interpreter, is an earnest and open-hearted attempt at a sitcom bromance between two very different men who become the best of friends.
However, Lorre and producers David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari have tried so hard to create a perfectly palatable story of an immigrant of color that they manage to turn Al into a caricature that borders on offensive. Without a fully formed title character or identity, “Al” adds up to a lackluster sitcom that doesn’t often land its jokes.
The series kicks off as Riley (Parker Young) is trying to adjust to civilian life back home, and Awalmir (Adhir Kalyan) finally arrives in the U.S. after waiting years for his chance at a new life in America. He moves in with his former brother-in-arms, currently living in his dad Art’s (Dean Norris) garage. Since returning from Afghanistan, Riley and his wife Vanessa (Kelli Goss) have separated, sharing custody of their daughter Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie), much to Al’s horror. Riley’s sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer) is also back home after her fiancé died in combat in Afghanistan.
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Al is rarely the butt of the broad sitcom’s jokes, unlike many portrayals of Middle Eastern characters on TV. But his character is also rarely written as a coherent human. Although his name is in the title, it’s the white characters who get the depth, the emotions and the relatability. We feel Lizzie mourning her late fiancé while drinking heavily and self-destructively seeking out anonymous sex; we see Riley struggle to find his place in civilian life by rebuffing a job with his dad and hitting on every woman he sees; and we understand Vanessa’s frustration with her ex’s inability to show up as a husband and father after he keeps letting her down.
But with Al, we see a little man who only wants to help everyone else achieve actualization. His wants and needs are unimportant to the narrative. His simplistic storylines, in the four episodes made available for review, include being bowled over by seeing a woman in shorts for the first time and trying to make Hazel conform to his conservative standards of how children should behave. Al is a stand-in for a model minority: an unthreatening, sexless, subservient presence in Riley’s home.
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Before its debut, “Al” received immense backlash on social media based on promos that romanticized occupying military forces, and for casting an actor of Indian and South African descent to play an Afghan character.
Iranian-born producer Reza Aslan defended the series, tweeting, “The only way you will no longer be underrepresented on TV is if people like me try to do something about it. And people like you support it. My whole life I’ve been misrepresented on TV. That’s why I came to Hollywood to change that. You don’t have to support the effort. But maybe watch it then (expletive) on it not other way round.”
Aslan noted the series has four Afghan writers and worked with advocacy organizations, real soldiers and translators. And while “Al” may derive inspiration from true stories, they don’t translate well to a sitcom format. While Lorre’s other immigrant sitcom, “Bob Hearts Abishola,” is a perfectly fine series with a lot of heart and well-rounded characters, “Al” is far more superficial.
“Al” certainly has good intentions. But good intentions aren’t enough to make the show a worthy representation of a culture or even a good sitcom. There has to be something more substantial to back them up, and “Al” just doesn’t have it.
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