United States of Al Tests the Limits of Good Representation | TV/Streaming


If the intent of “United States of Al” is to point out the contrasts and complexities of Afghan culture, and explore the fish-out-of-water strangeness of Al making a new life in Ohio, it needs to dig a little deeper. (And perhaps should have started with casting an Afghan actor as Al, rather than the Indian South African Kalyan.) Nothing about these first four episodes, though, suggests a willingness to move past the predictable pork/alcohol/sex jokes and into grappling with how a Middle Eastern and Muslim immigrant who spent years surrounded by war would adjust to American life. This series is called “United States of Al,” but the family who houses him are the real main characters. We see how the death of Lizzie’s fiancé in Afghanistan affected her, shifting her from a high-achieving student with a full ride to New York University to study art to a woman who spends her nights drinking and in strangers’ beds. We see how Riley’s tours affected him: his inability to hold down a job, his inability to stay loyal to his wife, his inability to deal with his ongoing purposelessness. 

But Al? The guy actually from Afghanistan, a country whose decades-long relationship with the United States has been one of corruption, mistreatment, and violence? Al seems perfectly fine, so utterly unfazed by his new life that the show almost seems to be suggesting war is a kind of natural state for the Middle East, and therefore easy to brush off and move past for people from that region. (Tell that to the millions displaced by the U.S. War on Terror, the collapse of Iraq, increased drone warfare under the Obama administration, and the Syrian Civil War.) At one point, Riley affectionately calls him a “clown,” and that’s exactly what this show makes Al. If the intent of “United States of Al” is to make Afghan people “nonthreatening” and to make the people who watch CBS sitcoms “tolerant,” I suppose this is one very grueling way to go about it. But so far, the extent of Al’s usefulness in the show ostensibly named after him is to function as something to laugh at, rather than someone. 

“United States of Al” begins by reuniting Riley and Al, who served for six years together in Afghanistan. It took Riley three years to strong-arm the U.S. government into signing Al’s Visa paperwork (federal foot dragging that put countless interpreters in danger during the Trump presidency and is still continuing now, under Biden), and now Al has arrived in Ohio to live with Riley’s family. (The fact that this show doesn’t do an “Al got detained at the airport” subplot is simultaneously a relief and also feels like a side stepping of a real issue that affects tons of Middle Eastern people traveling to this country!) Al is shocked to learn that Riley and his wife Vanessa are separated, and immediately volunteers to help them get back together, even if they’re both unwilling to do so. He also thinks Riley is too lax of a parent for Hazel (she won’t eat spinach, oh no!) and too disobedient of a son to Art (Riley doesn’t do chores in a timely fashion, oh no!); crazy how Afghan culture rigidly enforces generational piety, right? 

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