“United States of Al” Facing Backlash Over Portrayal of Afghan Lead Character

Untied States of Al CBS show
United State of Al – Image via Twitter @Lexialex, @saeedtaji, @QasimRashid

With the new CBS sitcom, United States of Al, getting ready for its April 1, 2021, premiere date, the show is already facing a lot of online backlash due to the portrayal of the Afghan lead character and other narrative choices.

From Chuck Lorre, I got to know about United States of Al today once the backlash popped up on my timeline. After watching the trailer, I can understand where all of the criticism is coming from.

This latest sitcom features the friendship between a Marine combat veteran named Riley (Parker Young) and his Afghan interpreter named Awalmir (played by non-Afghan actor Adhir Kalyan). Riley’s having trouble readjusting to civilian life. Awalmir arrives in America to begin a new journey.

The trailer shows Awalmir being sassy, complete with a noticeable English accent and exaggerated (queer-coded because it’s funny? Sigh!) gestures. Along with trying to fit into a different country, Awalmir will also help mend Riley’s personal life as Riley’s close to divorcing his wife Vanessa.

Many people took to Twitter to talk about how Awalmir serves as a different version of the “Magical Negro” trope in media due to the main narrative centering around a PoC fixing the troubles of a Caucasian family along with the PoC experiencing cultural shock being used for comedic effect. 

Reza Aslan, one of the executive producers of this show, decided to respond to the outcry.

United States of Al Reza twitter
Image via Twitter @rezaaslan
United States of Al
Image via Twitter @rezaaslan

As far as my opinion goes, saying that actors of Afghan descent couldn’t deliver during the sitcom’s audition process and thus the creative team had to opt for Kalyan as the lead is a very weird way to distract from the fact that Kalyan was one of the main characters in Rules of Engagement on CBS and his casting was (likely) due to convenience.

When I watched the trailer, I thought the lead was supposed to be a Desi character. I was surprised when it was shared he was Afghan. It’s clear that the United States of Al has primarily been created for a white audience who can’t clock the differences between people of Afghan descent (Afghanistan being a country in South Asia; bordering Pakistan) and non-Afghan descent.

Also, saying that the show’s creative team has Afghan and Muslim writers doesn’t make it immune from criticism. Jeff Davis, an out gay man, handled Teen Wolf and we all know how that turned out. 

united states of Al CBS backlash
Image via Twitter @NellSco, @wagatwe, @PiaGlenn

And while I understand Aslan defending his show, the fact remains that people are allowed to form their opinions about an upcoming TV series or film by viewing trailers and other promotional material (that’s literally what such content is for).

It’s not like the trailer for United Sates of Al showed stuff that won’t be in the actual sitcom. So, I’m not sure what Aslan is trying to say. I don’t think any amount of context can justify how Awalmir is being portrayed.

Also, this tweet from Aslan took me out!

united states of Al
Image via Twitter @rezaaslan

It’s giving me very, “Support my work even if it ends up being bad” energy. I have seen such arguments when talking about content featuring underrepresented communities and how you aren’t allowed to criticize the content even if it’s unwatchable because the failure of said content will stop other similar projects from being greenlit.

Judging from a recent interview on CBSNews, the creative team does seem aware of the nuance that should be displayed when making a sitcom about an American soldier and an Afghan interpreter.

We’re dealing with some very serious, real-life issues that need to be handled with respect and accuracy and care, particularly the representation of a Pashtun Afghan for maybe the first time in broadcast television history and the representation of a soldier, a Marine, coming home and adjusting to civilian life,” said co-creator Maria Ferrari.

And yet the actual lead isn’t a Pashtun Afghan? So, what is the creative team even trying to do when it comes to impactful Afghan representation in media?

There’s a reason the MCU cast an actress of Pakistani descent to play Kamala Khan. Such casting decisions matter. 

From what I have seen in the trailer, especially as someone with Pashtun Afghan family members, United States of Al isn’t cutting it.

Anyway, I’m going to stop here. Let’s see how the sitcom is received come April.

Feel free to share your thoughts with us.

Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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1 thought on ““United States of Al” Facing Backlash Over Portrayal of Afghan Lead Character

  1. The way Adhir Kalyan played a Muslim Pakistani on the CBS show… Aliens in America (2007-2008)… about an exchange student getting to live with Caucasian family and I guess fixing their problems? Lol. The “White people and their exotic comedic pets” trope continues. Sigh!

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