The new CBS sitcom, "United States of Al," is made of the stuff of news reports: an American soldier struggling to adjust to life at home after battle, paired with the resettling of an Afghan in the U.S. who assisted the military.
The show, produced by longtime showrunner Chuck Lorre and created by Dave Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, focuses on the bond between Marine combat veteran Riley, who is returning to life in Ohio, and his interpreter Awalmir, nicknamed "Al", who served with Riley's unit in Afghanistan and has recently moved to to the U.S. to start a new life.
Lorre, known for his work on "Two and a Half Men," "Roseanne" and "The Big Bang Theory," says the show "is very much about their friendship and their devotion to one another."
"It's also a very important show about something that we need to pay attention to, which is the promises that were made to these men that are still left unfulfilled," he told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on "The Takeout" this week.
Awalmir's character represents one of almost 19,000 Afghans who applied for and received a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for their work aiding U.S. forces. Approval of these visas can take years, and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process further. According to a State Department report from 2020, 18,864 SIVs still remained unprocessed as of September 2019, the most recent figures available. Those applications represent over 70,000 Afghans, including immediate family members who would also emigrate, according to the Washington Post.
Goetsch, and Ferrari also joined Garrett to discuss their creative process in bringing the show to air, and retired General David Petraeus and former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke about their work for No One Left Behind which helps prospective SIV beneficiaries and those who have made it to the U.S.
"It's really a moral obligation that we have to those who have essentially served alongside and sacrificed and shared risk with our men and women in uniform on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular [to get SIV recipients to the United States]," Petraeus said. "They have literally put their own security in jeopardy and often that of their family members as well."
"The process is very, very slow….You could literally land a rover on Mars within seven months. But this takes something like three and a half years – and that's when it's working," Petraeus said.
Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, called on the U.S. to allocate "the resources and the mechanisms to process these cases in three months, not three years."
"Al evokes the very best of what it is to be an American devotion to family, hard work, relentlessly hard work, discipline, and a ridiculous sense of humor," Lorre said.
Ferrari and Goetsch acknowledged that the show's plot presented unique challenges.
"We're dealing with some very serious, real life issues that need to be handled with respect and accuracy and care, particularly the representation of a Pashtun Afghan for maybe the first time in broadcast television history and the representation of a soldier, a Marine, coming home and adjusting to civilian life," Ferrari said.
But for Goetsch, those issues are also an avenue into humor. "Some of the biggest laughs come when you're a little bit uncomfortable," Goetsch said. "I think the show lives on in that space."
"United States of Al" premieres April 1 at 8:30/7:30c on CBS.
- Petraeus on promises made to Afghans who worked for U.S. forces: "It's really a moral obligation that we have to those who have essentially served alongside and sacrificed and shared risk with our men and women in uniform on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Some of them have been killed in the line of duty. Others have been killed by the Taliban or by the extremists in Iraq. They have literally put their own security in jeopardy and often that of their family members as well."
- Petraeus on whether television audiences are ready for a show about soldiers returning from war: "It's jarring actually to come home after having been deployed for six months or a year or even more. And it's even more jarring to do it repetitively, as so many of those did during the height of the war years in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. So, I do think that it is time. And I think that we will find out also that the country is ready."
- Chuck Lorre on the relationship between Riley, the Marine, and Al, his unit's translator: "It is very much about their friendship and their devotion to one another. And adding to that is there's a fish out of water story that's implicit in that. This character is astonished by the style of life that's available to him here."
- Writer Maria Ferrari on the challenges presented in "The United States of Al": "We're dealing with some very serious, real life issues that need to be handled with respect and accuracy and care, particularly the representation of a Pashtun Afghan for maybe the first time in broadcast television history and the representation of a soldier, a Marine, coming home and adjusting to civilian life."
For more of Major's conversation with the creative team of "United States of Al," Petraeus and Crocker, download "The Takeout" podcast on Art19, iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).
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