Chuck Lorre’s new CBS sitcom ‘United States of Al’ faces backlash over Afghan representation

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CBS sitcom faces backlash for casting choice of an Afghan character

CBS’ Chuck Lorre’s new sitcom “The United States of Al” is facing backlash for its casting and portrayal of a U.S. military interpreter from Afghanistan.

USA TODAY

A new trailer for writer/producer Chuck Lorre‘s upcoming CBS sitcom “The United States of Al” is facing backlash for the casting and portrayal of a U.S. military interpreter from Afghanistan.

Set to premiere April 1, “Al” centers on the friendship between Riley (Parker Young), an ex-Marine attempting to adjust to life outside of the service, and his unit’s interpreter, Awalmir, aka Al (Adhir Kalyan).

In a series of tweets over the weekend, executive producer Reza Aslan urged critics to “speak from facts, not feelings” and wait until they see the full show before forming an opinion. 

“The only way you will no longer be underrepresented on TV is if people like me try to do something about it. And people like you support it,” Aslan, who was born in Iran, tweeted Saturday in response to critics. “My whole life I’ve been misrepresented on TV. That’s why I came to Hollywood to change that. You don’t have to support the effort. But maybe watch it then (expletive) on it not other way round.”

USA TODAY has reached out to Lorre and CBS for further comment. 

Many on social media took issue with the fact that Kalyan is not Afghan but plays one in the show. Aslan noted on Twitter that four of the five Afghan characters on the show are played by Afghans.

“I crave Muslim content but this is offensive,” tweeted “General Hospital” actress Maysoon Zayid.

“I know @rezaaslan has other producing credits, and I honestly believe his heart *was* in the right place,” tweeted Broadway performer Pia Glenn. “But at some point the decision presented itself to make some CBS sitcom (expletive) OR a show honoring Afghan soldiers, and he chose the former.”

“We saw 100 Afghan leads but sitcom is a specialized genre and it’s very tough to play,” Aslan wrote. “But we also have four Afghan writers/producers on the show who’ve done a great job helping Adhir.” 

Others worried that the sitcom’s portrayal would whitewash and stereotype nuanced relationships between U.S. military members and Afghan interpreters: “gotta love sitcoms romanticizing occupation forces and the relationships they build along the way,” wrote AJ+ host Sana Saeed

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“You are literally talking about a true story,” Alsan added in response to those who worried the storyline was romanticized. “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.” 

Aslan also said the show works “hand in hand” with No One Left Behind, a non-profit dedicated to  “ensuring that America keeps its promise to our interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan,” and the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal and systemic advocacy to refugees, “to make sure we aren’t just talking about SIV program and the plight of Afghan interpreters.”

He added: “We are trying to do something about it. Actually changing policy.” 

Fellow executive producer Mahyad Tousi added the characters and storylines had 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.” 

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Contributing: Erin Jensen

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