New CBS sitcom 'United States of Al' slammed for offensive portrayal of Afghans

Executive producer Reza Aslan defended the show and the decision to cast a non-Afghan in the lead role

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 12: Pilot  Riley (Parker Young), a marine combat veteran is struggling to adjust to civilian life in Ohio and the interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan), who served with his unit in Afghanistan has just arrived to start a new life in America, on the series premiere of United States of Al, Thursday, April 1 (9:30-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Dean Norris, Elizabeth Alderfer, Kelli Goss and Farrah Mackenzie also star.  Pictured: Adhir Kalyan as Al, Dean Norris as Art. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

US broadcasting company CBS released a trailer for its new sitcom United States of Al earlier in March, only for it to be greeted by a wave of criticism across social media.

The show, created by David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, known for their work on The Big Bang Theory, tells the story of Afghan interpreter Awalmir, or "Al", who starts a new life in America and moves in with Riley, a combat Marine he worked with in Afghanistan.

Watch the trailer in full:

A spate of backlash was unleashed this weekend on the series, which is due to be released on Thursday, April 1.

In particular, people commented on the fact a non-Afghan actor was taking on the lead role. Adhir Kalyan, who plays Al, is South African of Indian descent. He has starred in a number of sitcoms since he bagged his first role in 2004, famously playing Timmy Patel in CBS' Rules of Engagement.

Executive producer Reza Aslan, who was born in Iran and moved to the US with his parents in 1979, was quick to defend the show, which he said "you can't judge" simply by watching the 30-second trailer. "Well, you shouldn't, at least," he wrote on Twitter.

Aslan – who is also a scholar, writer and TV host, with HBO's The Leftovers and documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims under his belt – replied to a flood of comments about the lack of authentic representation.

"There are five Afghan characters in the show and four of them are played by Afghans," he wrote in a tweet. "We saw 100 Afghan leads, but sitcom is a specialised 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."

On another thread, Aslan writes: "Because it’s my show, I can make sure that it is written and produced by Afghans and Muslims. That it uses the format to reframe the perception that people have of both. That it portrays a Muslim Afghan protagonist in a true and honest light."

In reply to this, General Hospital actress Maysoon Zayid, an American who is of Palestinian descent, said: "Why not authentically cast?", also accusing the show of playing up to "white saviour stuff".

"You had the power to say no and didn't. I crave Muslim content, but this is offensive," she added.

Aslan, however, refers to the series as a "brown saviour show", while replying to one Twitter user who said they were "disappointed in both the trailer and your response so far".

“I’m just OK with your opinion,” he replied to another critic. “Just wish it was based on facts not feels. I get it. My whole life I’ve been misrepresented on TV. That’s why I came to Hollywood to change that.”

Another critic said the show "romanticises forces which killed, tortured and unlawfully imprisoned thousands of Afghan civilians".

Aslan, however, says the storyline is based in reality. “You are literally talking about a true story," he replied. "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.”

To prove his point, Aslan retweeted an article by The Washington Post, shared by non-profit No One Left Behind, about thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who are under threat for helping Americans, and who are hoping President Joe Biden will resettle them in the US. These are citizens who jeopardised their safety to work with the US military as interpreters during the war. Under US law, they are eligible for special immigrant visas, but only 50 are available per year, and so many have been left behind.

In an interview with the University of California, Riverside, where Aslan is a professor of creative writing, the producer said the US had "absolutely abandoned these interpreters to their fate, many of whom have since been killed by Al Qaeda or the Taliban". He added that in Afghanistan, there are between 17,000 and 25,000 interpreters who have applied for the visa "that we promised them, and who have heard nothing yet”.

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 12: Pilot  Riley (Parker Young), a marine combat veteran is struggling to adjust to civilian life in Ohio and the interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan), who served with his unit in Afghanistan has just arrived to start a new life in America, on the series premiere of United States of Al, Thursday, April 1 (9:30-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Dean Norris, Elizabeth Alderfer, Kelli Goss and Farrah Mackenzie also star.  Pictured: Adhir Kalyan as Al, Elizabeth Alderfer as Lizzie, Parker Young as Riley. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

Aslan said he believes that, apart from bringing this visa programme to light, United States of Al also highlights issues of racism and xenophobia towards immigrants prevalent in America today.

Joining the discussion on Twitter, fellow executive producer Mahyad Tousi said the show's characters and their stories have been "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".

Starring alongside Kalyan in the show is Parker Young, who plays US Marine Riley. Dean Norris plays the soldier's father, while Kelli Goss is Vanessa, Riley's estranged wife.

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