Warner Bros won't save us
On "The United States of Al," the limits of representation and feeling invisible
If you’ve spent some time on Twitter this past weekend, then I’m sorry. But perhaps you’ve heard about a show that’s coming to a national broadcast television channel on primetime that involves Afghans in a major plotline. I think if you had told me years ago that there’d be a sitcom on television during primetime that was created with the involvement of and about Afghans, I’d be ecstatic. Alas, here we are in the year 2021, where society has upped the standards for what is passable or acceptable in popular culture and elsewhere—at least to some degree. The show “United States of Al” is actually about a Marine vet named Riley who served in Afghanistan and is adjusting to regular life. The subject of how America treats those who serve in America’s never-ending wars overseas certainly deserves more attention than we have given it in the past. This Chuck Lorre production involves a character named Awalmir (or “Al”) who served as an interpreter in Afghanistan and now has moved to the United States.
Merely fifteen seconds go by in the trailer before we see the first explosions and our supposed Afghan friend Al in a military humvee, somewhere in Afghanistan. More unfortunate stereotypical interactions follow that I will leave for folks to unpack for themselves. What’s implied here is that Riley went to Afghanistan to fight “the good war” there. The viewer at home themself have to figure out why this “good war” has lasted so long that service members who served at the beginning of it now have children serving in the same damn place fighting the same exact war. Not to mention that Al is not in his country of origin anymore and that despite his best efforts, he is now many thousands of miles from home in his new “home.” And he’s one of the lucky ones.
But this isn’t about representation or diversity, per se. Nor is it about the incorrect accent or the lead being a South African Indian. Representation obviously matters and Afghans have surprisingly very little today in Hollywood, even compared to how the Iranian and South Asian diaspora communities are doing in the entertainment industry. Representation can be powerful but it cannot be the end all be all and we should be careful how we invoke it. Art, if that’s what this is supposed to be, should be authentic and organic. Nothing, to me, seems natural to me about a person’s story of displacement and betrayal despite promises of refuge and safety. More importantly, Afghans are actually involved in the making of this show, as actors, consultants, and writers. (For the record, I was asked to pass on names of Afghans who might be interested in working this production and I did.)
And yet the “end product,” even if it’s just a trailer, leaves many of us frustrated, regardless. Perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for America’s relationship with Afghans. This character seems to have no independent thought and seems to be in service of Riley, even when he’s off the battlefield. In the trailer alone, he serves as a marriage counselor, best friend, and confidante. An Afghan, not at the center, but on the outskirts, looking in, always in a supporting role, in a show that is not about him at all actually. Even the discussion regarding the critique of this show has shades of this invisibility. The Hollywood Reporter wrote about the shit storm the trailer caused, then managed not to quote a single Afghan in a 700-word write-up. Impressive.
I’m an Afghan creative myself who spent my 20s making short films, shooting vlogs, and producing music videos. Nowadays, I spent more time thinking about what it takes to elevate the talented Afghans in our community who get chided for not going to med school or becoming lawyers. I know, for a fact, that there’s a boatload of Afghans in the diaspora who are clamoring at the chance to create but simply have not been offered the opportunity because their stories don’t center on the occupation or a white person. I know this because they're my friends. I know, that in the not so near future, there will be someone of Afghan descent who will create something and it will be a story filled with grace and beauty. That person will likely be a woman, maybe someone queer. Until that happens, though, you can watch the “United States of Al” and maybe get an inkling as to why the United States of America lost to the Taliban.