Reza Aslan responds to criticism of the CBS sitcom, which premieres tonight.
The United States of Al
Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

United States of Al (TV series)

The executive producer of The United States of Al, a new CBS comedy about an Afghan interpreter (Adhir Kalyan) who immigrates to the United States, says he understands why viewers have had a knee-jerk reaction to the show's concept — and he's "trying to do something about it."

Writer and executive producer Reza Aslan (The Leftovers) says he watched how some social media users negatively judged Al based on its 30-second trailer. One person said on Twitter, "This is a real TV show. Actually made by human people. On Planet Earth. In 2021." The multi-camera sitcom is executive produced by Chuck Lorre and was created by The Big Bang Theory writers Maria Ferrari and Dave Goetsch, who'd read about the plight of Afghan interpreters who faithfully served the U.S. military while putting their lives are at risk. A program is available for interpreters to immigrate to the U.S., but it often takes years.

In Al, Marine combat veteran Riley (Parker Young) plays a big role in helping his wartime buddy Awalmir, or Al, make it quickly and safely to America.

"We understand. As Brown people in this country, we know better than most, the sensitivity that a lot of people have about the way that Hollywood has represented them," Aslan said during a panel discussion for the 92nd Street Y. "[His response via Twitter was] not anger at all. It's not even defensiveness. It's an attempt to say that we hear what you're hearing. We're saying we understand your fear. What you don't understand is that we have bent over backwards, trying to do something about it," Aslan explained.

"The dream for us has always been to get a Muslim protagonist on network television, someone who could really reframe the perceptions of so many Americans about Muslims or people from this broad region. We knew that Dave and Maria would be the perfect shepherds for this and that Chuck would be the kind of person who could take very heavy topics like immigration xenophobia and transform them into something entertaining and palatable, but without necessarily taking the edge away."

The sitcom also stars Kelli Goss as Vanessa, Riley's estranged wife, Elizabeth Alderfer as Parker's sister Lizzie and Dean Norris as the patriarch Art. Early on in the comedy, Al recognizes troubling signs within the family and tries his best to help.

"I was really excited about what was explained to me that Al is a fixer," says Lorre, who is an executive producer on the sitcom. "His role with the U.S. forces in Afghanistan was to not only translate, but to make introductions to facilitate what needs to be done — not on a combat level but in terms of working with with people in the environment. When he comes to America, he's still playing the same role. He's intent on fixing his buddy's marriage, which is broken. His nature doesn't change, even though his environment changes dramatically. He is still that kind of extraordinary human being whose main motivation is to make life better for the people around him. This make a wonderful buddy comedy, but also it's a fish out of water story."

The United States of Al debuts tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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