New US sitcom faces backlash over 'cringeworthy' Afghan portrayal, 'white saviour' storyline

New US sitcom faces backlash over 'cringeworthy' Afghan portrayal, 'white saviour' storyline
The United States of Al has been accused of having a 'white saviour' complex and failing to cast lead roles correctly.
3 min read
29 March, 2021
Chuck Lorre has created numerous popular US sitcoms [Getty]

US director Chuck Lorre's latest sitcom has whipped up a frenzy on social media before the first episode has even aired, with users accusing the sitcom of relying on a “white saviour” theme.

The United States of Al tells the story of Afghan interpreter Awalmir, played by Adhir Kalyan, who after working for the US military moves to America.

There he lives with his US Marine friend Riley, played by Parker Young.

Following the online release of the trailer, the show faced criticism for its portrayal of Afghanistan, the Afghan people, and the casting of its central character. 

It comes as a disappointment for fans of Chuck Lorre's other creations, including The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men.

“Can someone tell Chuck Lorre that 'what if a white person liked a brown person' is not a tv show concept” commented writer Rekha Shankar. 

“This is so ridiculous and offensive I don't have the words to express just how terribly bad this is on every conceivable level,” Qasim Rashid, a human right lawyer and author, wrote.

“The most culturally cringeworthy thing I think I’ve ever seen. C’mon, surely this a PARODY of a US Sitcom, not a real sitcom? Ironically it’s premiering on 1 April,” wrote another Twitter user. 

The main criticisms of the show are its perceived reliance on the ‘white saviour’ theme and the casting of a non-Afghan in the role of the Afghan interpreter. 

Adhir Kalyan is South African actor of Indian heritage. 

“Rather than bringing nuance to an Afghan-American pairing, the Chuck Lorre production is a show from another era: it's all flat characters, and cheap, uninspired jokes,” wrote Afghan journalist Ali Latifi, who was invited to watch the first and fifth episode of the show.

While the trailer does show the role that Afghan interpreters played during the US invasion, it makes no mention of the intense danger that they put themselves into by undertaking this work. 

“But the truth is that for Afghan interpreters who worked alongside US and NATO forces were seen locally as collaborators and became targets for the Taliban. Dreams that they would become refugees in America often didn't materialise,” writes Latifi.

Under intense online criticism, Reza Aslan, Iran-American author and documentary maker, who also serves as the show’s executive producer, has requested that people watch the show before levelling criticism.

“You can’t judge a show by a 30 sec trailer. Well, you shouldn’t, at least. Still this is Twitter…” he wrote on Twitter.

Aslan also pointed out that a number of Afghan interpreters had moved the US and lived with the Marines they served alongside, and “We know cause we actually spoke to them. This is literally their story”.

Read more: As clock ticks, Biden's peace plan risks alienating Afghanistan's rival powers

Other also stepped in to defend the casting of Kalyan. 

“Adhir Kalyan is an Indian-South African actor born in apartheid South Africa. In 2021 America, he is told he can’t play characters outside his own “race”. I guess he is familiar with this Apartheid thinking?” wrote US-Iranian author Arash Azizi.

While Aslan highlighted the other Afghan roles in the show. 

“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 specialised 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.”

The United States of Al premiers on 1 April on CBS

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