Making a sitcom about the consequences of war is definitely an uncommon choice, and after seeing “United States of Al,” it’s clear why.
The show focuses on Al (Adhir Kalyan, “Rules of Engagement”), an Afghan interpreter moving to America, and his dear friend Riley (Parker Young, “Imposters”), an ex-Marine who spent time in the same division as Al. Waiting for the rest of his family to arrive in the U.S., Al decides to live in Riley’s garage in the meantime. At first, it may seem like a step in the right direction to have a major network show explore the effects of war from both American and Afghan perspectives, but “United States of Al” is unable to deliver anything genuine.
The show immediately clues the audience in on its main themes. Riley, the returning veteran, struggles with alcoholism, resulting in a looming divorce from his wife. Riley’s sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer, “AP Bio”) similarly struggles to cope with the loss of her fiancé overseas. Everyone in the show is allowed some internal nuance, except the titular character. Despite being in every scene, the audience knows little to nothing about Al’s motivations, his struggles or anything else that would give him some depth. In every scene he’s in, Al keeps the plot moving along, but never for his own sake. In one scene, he’s organizing a date with Riley and his soon-to-be ex-wife; in another, he’s helping Lizzie overcome her fear of connection.
Al, lacking his own agency, fits into the role of the “model minority” often represented in American popular culture. He’s hard-working, always cheerful, constantly expressing how grateful he is to move to the “greatest nation on earth” — all hallmarks of the model minority archetype. Rather than have personal struggles that need to be resolved, Al helps the rest of the cast with their issues. In a show bearing his own name, Al exists only to be a caricature of what an immigrant looks like, and fails to present any challenge to the audience’s preconceived notions of what the Afghan identity can be.
In addition to showing little depth, Al is played as the main butt of the joke. Much of the show’s humor includes derivative stereotypes about a foreigner interacting with American hallmarks like supermarkets and beer. However, the jokes surrounding Al and Riley’s experience in the War in Afghanistan are even more troubling. In one scene, it’s revealed that Al drives slowly because he’s cautious of the roadside bombs that are commonplace in his home country. Rather than being treated as a deep-seated sign of trauma, this behavior is played off comedically. Al constantly jokes about the Americans coming in and “lighting everything on fire.” This is played up for laughs, but in reality, the U.S. is still in Afghanistan, making “United States of Al” an aggravating reminder that an ongoing war is being used for lighthearted comedy. The War in Afghanistan, which has cost thousands of lives and years of suffering, is treated as something for the audience to enjoy.
In truth, “United States of Al” is much darker than the creators of the show probably intended it to be. The show plays off a truly brutal war as a harmless blunder, and its only non-white cast member as a model minority man. In truth, the entire show feels like a fantasy of resolving the War in Afghanistan. “United States of Al” assumes that America’s mistakes will be easily forgiven by the people of Afghanistan (who Al supposedly represents).
The harsh reality is that the war is not over. And even if it were to end, no American should expect anyone to play the War in Afghanistan off as a joke, whether in a sitcom or anywhere else.
Daily Arts Writer Josh Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.