Series premiere: The United States of Al
One of Chuck Lorre’s newest sitcoms, the United States of Al, picked up some pre-launch buzz but not good buzz. Lots of people looked at the 30s trailer and immediately jumped on it saying it was going to be tone-deaf, mocking Muslims, etc. Oddly enough, the goal of the producers was to have a Muslim protagonist that wasn’t a punchline.
Personally, I try not to prejudge a show from that perspective. What I ask myself is simply, “Is there much humour going to be found in said situational comedy that doesn’t make me cringe? Will the actors make me tune in? Will the writers make me laugh?”.
I watched EP1, and the short answer is no to all three questions.
I’m tough on comedies
I confess, I am really tough on comedies. There are a ton of sitcoms out there and I can’t watch them. Fat jokes, ethnic jokes, tease the different person, etc. all make me cringe. Or a premise that is simply miscommunication / misunderstanding combined with immaturity of the main star, often a man, to reinforce the idea that “men are from mars”-level stupid. Yawn.
Very, very few comedies make it through my gauntlet of fall or spring premieres. I watched Big Bang Theory because I’m nerdy and enjoyed the show enough to keep watching up until they added the girlfriends and then I started to love it. Currently, I’m regularly watching the animated show, The Great North, the show with Walter Goggins called The Unicorn, and the kidney donation show B Positive. I can’t imagine B Positive will get renewed, but TV Grim Reaper is predicting it will be, along with The Unicorn, while the Great North has already been renewed.
But I digress. Let’s get back to ripping The United States of Al, EP1. The show basically divides into five scenes:
- Waiting for Al to arrive at the airport, where you learn that the main character is a Marine who has been trying to get his Afghani interpreter over to the US for three years (although there’s a timeline problem as he says he’s been trying for 3y, but he’s only been back 6m?);
- Driving back from the airport, where there’s a series of one-liners to show the camaraderie between the two men;
- A scene at home over dinner, where they talk about the fact that the Marine is going through a divorce;
- A scene afterwards in the garage, where the two men get to talk about adjusting to life outside of Afghanistan for both of them; and,
- A scene where Al invites the soon-to-be ex-wife over for some mediation with the Marine.
It’s slightly more than those five scenes, but not much. So here’s the thing…if you read those five scenes, there really isn’t much comic gold to be mined there. Waiting for Al, you see a guy and a girl trading lines, but it isn’t really clear who they are. You assume they are boyfriend/girlfriend, but they are brother and sister. It’s mildly amusing. The drive from the airport is more or less just an extended airport scene, with the sister in the backseat with NOTHING to do, while the two men reacquaint themselves. There’s a repeated series of lines throughout the show about the US bombing Afghanistan, hahaha, isn’t that funny? Well, no, it’s not. It’s just stupid, nor would the Afghani interpreter likely be the one making those jokes. But whatever.
The scene around the dinner table is mostly leading up to the revelation regarding the divorce, and how upset the Marine is about it. All leading to Al intervening the next morning to try to mediate between the divorcing couple. Oh, and before we get there, let’s talk about the fact that the sister was planning a wedding to a guy in the same unit who was killed, and now she goes out partying a lot, and the Marine is struggling to fit back into his old life. Wow, just screams laugh track, doesn’t it?
Can the actors or dialogue save it?
You may have noticed that I keep calling the main guy, The Marine. Why? Because his name is irrelevant. He acts like a petulant child for most of the episode, not the amazing smart compassionate guy who got the interpreter out of Afghanistan somehow. His name is Riley, sure, and he’s played by Parker Young but basically he’s a cardboard character. I saw Young before in Arrow and A Million Little Things, but he has very little presence and can’t seem to fit into his role, although perhaps that’s what he’s going for (as he TELLS us, he doesn’t know what he is back in the normal world). Considering he’s carrying 50% of the show, that’s a big risk.
The other half is Al, played by Adhir Kalyan, and he’s decent. Is he an “authentic” Afghani? No clue. He’s cast generically, and written generically, so it might be fairer to ask if he’s “authentic regular-guy” Muslim. Equally, no clue. What I do know? He drops some of his best lines woodenly. A bit of sarcasm throw-away lines rather than “mic drop” quality. I liked Kalyan back on Second Chance, but I don’t know if I like him enough for him to anchor half a show. Nor am I buying him as the “fixer” of everything. He doesn’t have enough gravitas to start a cult following of Riley’s friends and family.
Supporting characters are limited to three for the episode…Riley has a sister, played by Elizabeth Alderfer, and there is some hinting from Riley that she’s got some complicated mental stuff going on that won’t get fixed in a single 22m episode. That doesn’t mean there is any substance “there”. I’ve seen Alderfer in a few cameos but none of her big stuff and in EP1, she looks like “generic sitcom girl” who could have been a single episode character for all she contributed.
Dean Norris plays their father, Art, and much of his role is to run the house, he cooks meals, he keeps the family together, etc. Oh, and to keep saying how much he likes Al who does nothing but kiss his butt all episode. Yet here’s the thing that I find a bit hard to wrap my head around. I have seen Norris as guest-star-of-the-week on numerous shows going back almost 30 years. And every time, he’s okay but a bit of a caricature. Limited characters is probably closer to the description. And as soon as I saw him, I was like “Meh”. Not because I don’t like him, I do, but because everything I have seen him in, he’s had limited range.
We also get to meet the separated wife, Vanessa, played by Kelli Goss. I haven’t seen her in much, but honestly, my reaction is pretty much in her name “Kelli with an i”. There was no on-screen presence. She too could have been “sitcom girl of the EP” and disappear.
Apparently, we will get to meet the daughter Hazel in future EPs, but none of the acting here said, “Watch me!”.
And, as noted by the heading, when I turn myself to the writing, there are some wry comments throughout the show, but almost no real jokes. They may have come from the Big Bang Theory, but the writers should have been cancelled when TBBT ended. To be blunt, many of the lines could be delivered by anyone.
Where do I think the show will go?
Oh, look, let’s have an ethnic minority you don’t normally see and show how they make everyone’s life better. That must be show-worthy, right? In my opinion, no. There’s no meat on the bones. And as such, I’m going to predict cancellation. But I do so knowing that TV Grim Reaper predicts renewal based on the current ratings and knowing that it is a Chuck Lorre show, and EVERYONE loves Chuck. I’m still going with cancellation though.