'The United States of Al' producer fends off backlash sparked by show's first trailer

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Christie D'Zurilla
·5 min read
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An executive producer on Chuck Lorre's new midseason series "The United States of Al" is defending the CBS sitcom against attacks based on a recent trailer for the show, which features an Afghan main character living with his wartime colleague, a white Marine.

Criticisms leveled over the weekend included the casting of a non-Afghan actor in the lead role and the perception that the show has a "white savior" theme. Others were disturbed to see only one person of color in the show's teaser clip.

"The United States of Al" revolves around the bond between a Marine combat veteran who is struggling to adjust after returning home to Ohio and his Afghan interpreter, who has just moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan to start a new life.

The characters fought alongside each other against the Taliban, and the Marine, Riley, worked hard to get translator Awalmir — nicknamed Al — into the U.S. after his tour of duty.

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Executive producer Reza Aslan, who is from Iran and has HBO's "The Leftovers" and the documentary series "The Secret Life of Muslims" on his résumé, defended the show on social media over the weekend, emphasizing that all critics have seen at this point is the trailer.

"You can't judge a show by a 30 sec trailer," he wrote Sunday. "Well, you shouldn't, at least. Still this is Twitter..."

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"I’m just ok with your opinion," Aslan, who previously hosted the CNN series "Believer With Reza Aslan,” tweeted at one 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. You don’t have to support the effort. But maybe watch it then s— on it not other way round."

In response to criticism for casting actor Adhir Kalyan, who is of South Asian descent and was born in South Africa, in the lead role, Aslan said, "There are five Afghan characters in the show and four of them are played by Afghans. We saw 100 Afghan leads but sitcom is a specialized 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."

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Kalyan, 37, is a sitcom veteran who played Timmy Patel on CBS' "Rules of Engagement." He has his Twitter page set to private, so no comments were visible.

One scholar criticizing Aslan alluded to the "white savior" trope: "To see an American soldier hosting an Afghan [war interpreter] in the US and letting him live with his family does romanticise forces which killed, tortured, and unlawfully imprisoned thousands of Afghan civilians. Very disappointing from you."

The problem with that, Aslan said, is that the sitcom is reality-based. "You are literally talking about a true story. 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."

The real-life story involves Afghan and Iraqi citizens who have jeopardized their safety to work with the U.S. military as translators or interpreters during wartime. They are eligible for special immigrant visas, or SIVs, to come to the United States, but the program offers up to only 50 such visas per year.

But the snark continued online.

"Finally, a groundbreaking show that will help Americans understand the plight of Indian actors playing magical Afghans to hunky gentle white supermodel saviors who are 'tired from war because there is so much walking.' Thank you @rezaaslan for taking so many risks," activist Rafael Shimunov tweeted, earning a snappy reply from Aslan: "It’s actually a brown savior show but you do you dude."

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Aslan also retweeted something from No One Left Behind, a nonprofit committed to ensuring that the U.S. keeps its promise to care for those in other countries who jeopardize their safety on behalf of the United States.

The organization promoted "The Takeout" podcast about "United States of Al," which writers Maria Ferrari and David Goetsch and "Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men" showrunner Lorre did recently with Ret. Gen. David Petraeus and CBS News' Major Garrett.

In it, Garrett, who said he had watched and enjoyed four "Al" episodes, praised the sitcom.

"This is a show that will matter," the journalist said at the start of the March 19 episode of the political podcast. "It is the bravest comedy I have seen in about a decade."

Goetsch described the writers' process as they worked on the show, which included conversations with friends and others who'd been in the same roles as Al and Riley, in similar situations, after fighting against the Taliban. Their writers room, he said, includes veterans and people of Afghan descent.

CBS did not respond Monday to The Times' request for comment.

Starring with Kalyan are Parker Young as Riley, Dean Norris as Riley's dad (Art) and Kelli Goss as Riley's estranged wife (Vanessa).

“The United States of Al” premieres April 1.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.