“United States of Al” is Another Show Made for White Viewers- But in a Good Way

On April 1st, a new CBS comedy premiered that pleasantly surprised me. Produced by Chuck Lorre Productions, United States of Al manages to claim a spot on the Incluvie radar, follow the tried-and-true formula of the evening sitcom lineup, and, therefore, appeal to the masses. 

United States of Al is a weekly thirty-minute comedy that follows Awalmir, or Al (Adhir Kalyan) as he begins the process of immigrating to America, where he will stay with an old war buddy, Riley (Parker Young) and his family. Riley and Al served in Iraq together, Riley as a Marine and Al as an interpreter. Now that he is looking to plant roots in America, Riley acts as his guide to assimilating to the culture. Al’s journey, however, is diverted when he learns that Riley’s marriage has fallen to pieces in the months that they have been apart and is determined to reconcile the relationship of his dear friend. 

After having seen the pilot, I was impressed with so many character elements of United States of Al. The dynamic shown between Al and Riley creates a very special atmosphere within the show: Al, on his first day in America, naturally brings with him the practices and behaviours that he’s used to- which are considered a little uncommon in his new home. In these instances, the show has managed to still find humour in the ways in which the cultures differ without being ignorant, the overall attitude is dignified and optimistic. Rather than accentuate those differences in an Othering and separative space, the tone of the interactions only highlights what we as a society can learn from one another if we were to just open our hearts and minds. 

Throughout the first episode, Al is always kind- even when faced with new, overwhelming circumstances. He is portrayed as perpetually polite, grateful and true to himself in the funniest, most charismatic way. It is refreshing and joyful to have a POC character represented in such an authentic manner- bringing to the table what gifts they have to offer and their unique perspective.

Al is also shown as a beacon of hope for his friend, who is profoundly struggling after returning from combat. In the face of adversity, Al is the voice of reason and balance, making everyone around him feel at ease. In a media landscape where darker-skinned actors are often casted as antagonists, more specifically, as threats to American freedom, Al’s character is portrayed in a way that actively works to counteract that stereotype. He is repeatedly revered for his heroics while working alongside the American Military, as well as continuously working to help Riley free himself from his own demons. This is not a character that audiences of mainstream cable comedies are used to seeing, and the timing could not have been better as fear mongering and racism continue to alienate these groups.

Riley is an excellent example for audience members observing their relationship. As he welcomes Al into his family home, he enforces and respects his religious practices. Perhaps most importantly, he is shown calling his family out on ignorant missteps they take while interacting with Al. These are both carefully considered and important details that were included in the script. It is revivifying to watch the trend in sitcoms shift, of the cast of characters we have met so far, everyone is taken aback by how Al’s behaviour differs from their own- but no one ever mocks him. 

Audience anticipation for upcoming episodes seems to be high, the first episode of this show has clearly positively engaged with viewers, in particular – U.S. Army veterans and immigrants. Feedback stemming from viewers who share the same lived experience as Al appreciate the well thought out elements of this show, and have also vocalized the validation they feel seeing those experiences reflected on mainstream cable programs. Similarly, this dynamic is also an opportunity for veterans to be recognized and understood; Al’s character provides the perfect platform to accomplish many energizing, new, and positive feats within the constrictive lines of nighttime half-hour comedies. Congruent with the themes of the show so far, United States of Al can be a stepping stone in showing Western audiences that the familiar way is not always the right way to move forward.






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