Though the trailer for Chuck Lorre’s (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) upcoming CBS sitcom, United States of Al, dropped a few weeks ago, mounting criticism made the series a trending topic on social media over the weekend. “Twitter was ablaze with criticism against the series,” Deadline explained “and executive producer Reza Aslan [Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, The Leftovers] spent a lot of his time trying to put out these fires, defending United States of Al.” Aslan, a prolific author and co-founder of BoomGen Studios, spent the weekend encouraging early critics to wait until the series airs on April 1 before levelling complaints against it.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, United States of Al presents as a “warm-hearted” comedy about the friendship between Riley, a Marine combat veteran, and Awalmir, who served as his interpreter in Afghanistan. Thom Sherman, Senior Executive Vice President of Programing at CBS Entertainment told ViacomCBS that “United States of Al holds up a mirror to ourselves in a unique way by taking a look at American culture through the eyes of an immigrant who is experiencing it all for the very first time.”
can someone tell Chuck Lorre that “what if a white person liked a brown person” is not a tv show concept
— Rekha Shankar (@rekhalshankar) March 21, 2021
The underlying premise of United States of Al became an aspect of the show that drew criticism online over the weekend. Writer and comedian Rekha Shankar (CollegeHumor, Between Two Ferns: The Movie) interpreted the trailer’s theme as “what if a white person liked a brown person” concluding that this “is not a tv show concept” (Twitter).
The glimpses of Riley and Al’s friendship seen in the trailer added to the overall criticism. “In the trailer alone, [Al] serves as a marriage counselor, best friend, and confidante,” wrote video producer and community organizer Arash Azizzada in his nuanced critique of United States of Al’s trailer for his newsletter What’s Up Afghanistan “an Afghan, not at the center, but on the outskirts, looking in, always in a supporting role, in a show that is not about him at all actually.”
ok so i wrote about the “The United States of Al,” the limits of representation and feeling invisiblehttps://t.co/H34QKbfNby
— Arash Azizzada آرش (@87films) March 22, 2021
Azizzada wrote that “representation can be powerful but it cannot be the end all be all and we should be careful how we invoke it.” (What’s Up Afghanistan). While Azizzada affirmed representation’s importance and noted that “Afghans have surprisingly very little today in Hollywood,” he posited that South African Indian actor Adhir Kalyan’s (Rules of Engagement, Paul Blart: Mall Cop) casting in the titular role of Al is not the most crucial takeaway from the series trailer.
Despite this, many chose to focus on Kalyan’s casting as criticism of the series snowballed over the weekend. Executive Producer Aslan’s “staunch defense” of the series centered on viewers reaching conclusions based on the content of the trailer alone, before seeing the series for themselves, via The Hollywood Reporter. Aslan pointed out that, while Kalyan’s Al is the only Afghan character seen in the trailer, United States of Al features four other Afghan characters in its main ensemble, all of whom are portrayed by Afghan performers, via Twitter.
There are five Afghan characters in the show and four of them are played by Afghans. We saw 100 Afghan leads but sitcom is a specialized genre and it’s very tough to play. But we also have four Afghan writers/producers on the show who’ve done a great job helping Adhir. https://t.co/bGej9bcN3B
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) March 21, 2021
Alsan, who’s BoomGen Studios aims to tell stories about “the peoples and cultures of the Middle East, Central/South Asia, and North Africa”, expressed his additional pride about the Afghan representation behind-the-scenes on United States of Al, via BoomGen. The Executive Producer’s tweet stated that the series’ four Afghan writers/producers have “done a great job helping [Kalyan]” prepare for the role of Al.
Many on Twitter have scrutinized this specific defense of Aslan’s regarding United States of Al‘s casting. The casting component of the CBS sitcom’s recent backlash is reminiscent of a central criticism of Amazon’s Transparent, which “showcase[d] trans talent in front of and behind the camera” while that same level of representation “never quite made it to the top” (The Hollywood Reporter). Recently in movies, musician Sia displayed similar defensiveness when criticized for casting Maddie Ziegler (Dance Moms) as a non-verbal autistic protagonist in her directorial debut Music. Much like Aslan, Sia’s adamant defense of Ziegler’s casting deflected toward other examples of representation in the project and did not further the cause of quelling audience concerns.
In addition to Al’s casting and general characterization, previewed in the trailer, the military aspect of United States of Al’s premise has likewise drawn criticism to the series. In response to a Twitter user calling the series “military propaganda”, Executive Producer and BoomGen co-founder Mahyad Tousi (Of Kings and Prophets) tweeted that United States of Al’s story is “mined from deep research and interviews with dozens of folks who have walked in these shoes” in order to create a nuanced story about war.
What if the show isn’t military propaganda, but rather using these characters and their stories –mined from deep research and interviews with dozens of folks who have walked in these shoes – in order to make nuanced commentary on how war affects people? https://t.co/bOJYCPV45l
— Mahyad Tousi (@MahyadT) March 21, 2021
Writer and veteran Dylan Park-Pettiford (68 Whiskey) insinuated that one of the stories “mined” for the CBS sitcom was his own. Park, who shared a story about reuniting with an Iraqi translator on Twitter in 2017, said of United States of Al’s trailer: “they totally ripped off my story and turned it into a racist comedy” (Twitter).
I love that they totally ripped off my story and turned it into a racist comedy btw https://t.co/xl80RgaolY
— Dylan Park (@dyllyp) March 21, 2021
“You are literally talking about a true story,” Aslan inadvertently offered a reason why United States of Al may bare similarities to real stories such as Park-Pettiford’s while defending another claim of military propaganda/romanticization on Twitter “there are dozens and dozens of Afghan interpreters living with US soldiers. We know cause we actually spoke to them.” In a different Tweet, Aslan explained that the series’ consulted with the organizations No One Left Behind and International Refugee Assistance Project “to make sure we aren’t just talking about SIV program and the plight of Afghan interpreters. We are trying to do something about it. Actually changing policy.”
You are literally talking about a true story. There are dozens and dozens of Afghan interpreters living with US soldiers. We know cause we actually spoke to them. This is literally their story. Speak from facts not feelings brother. https://t.co/vZH12Lcqgu
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) March 21, 2021
If United States of Al were able to change policy as Aslan hopes, it may resolve at least one, of the many, criticisms raised about the series. According to the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, many feel the trailer comes across as tone-deaf when considering the harsh reality faced by Afghan translators. In 2014, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver covered the seemingly insurmountable obstacles set before military translators seeking asylum in the United States.
Responding to a news story about this ongoing visa issue, Aslan said “believe it or not, this is the subject of our new [CBS] comedy” adding that a sitcom with mainstream appeal is the best way to raise awareness in American households, via Twitter. Though a noble goal, many still worry that the “red flags” prevalent in United States of Al’s trailer will dilute such a point, via Deadline.
All we can do is try https://t.co/wDAD4GyfiP
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) March 21, 2021
Aslan has continued to actively defend the deluge of criticism levelled against United States of Al ahead of its premiere and still encourages Twitter users to reserve criticism until they can watch the show for themselves on CBS, starting April 1.
In What’s Up Afghanistan, Azizzada acknowledged the imperfections prevalent in United States of Al’s trailer while remaining optimistic that the series could be step in reaching better representation down-the-line. “Until that happens,” Azizzada closed “you can watch the United States of Al and maybe get an inkling as to why the United States of America lost to the Taliban” (What’s Up Afghanistan).