Before I begin I feel compelled to put this warning up again:
BW Media Spotlight is a storytelling discussion blog, not a political blog. While by necessity we will be discussing real world events, many of whom are the source of heated debates (and that’s being generous with my description), those debates have nothing to do with this topic and are not welcomed no matter who you’re supporting or bashing! I will delete stuff or straight up turn off comments if I have to. This is your only warning!
Last month I wrote about how real world events can have an impact on our stories. Something that seemed like a great idea can be altered when it would be seen as tasteless or triggering based not on what a certain group may think but due to a real life disaster or incident that makes what was fiction seem tame in the face of real life.
The United States Of Al probably wasn’t prepared to face the harshest example of that since the US first went into Afghanistan because the Taliban ruling government was protecting Al Queda, the group responsible for the 9-11 attacks that serves as the first example. If you haven’t seen the show or my review of the pilot, the sitcom follows the life of Awalmir, an interpreter for the US during the war. Though the Taliban were forced from power, they continued to be threat enough that his life and that of his family was in danger. Awalmir, aka “Al”, was helped to escape by his soldier friend Reilly, and he works to help Al get his family to safety while Al tries to help him with PTSD and the resulting end of his marriage. The show also includes Reilly’s sister Lizzie, whose fiancé was killed during the war. The show highlighted the real life situation in Afghanistan for locals who helped the US forces and the actors even promoted a charity group working to get US allies out of the country safely.
Two days before filming on the next season was to begin, things changed. I won’t get into the politics or who to blame for what because this isn’t a political blog, and while biases are unavoidable I want to review the story, not the events that inspired it. Those events are a deadline set by President Joe Biden, and as the deadline neared the Taliban took the opportunity to retake the country. US forces scrambled to escape, and ended up leaving behind modern weapons and information. People were killed or injured as the Taliban waved good-bye with their guns, and as of this writing they have retaken control of the country, making the whole war not only pointless but giving them new toys to play with. Granted, your assessment may differ but that’s full disclosure of where I’m coming from in the whole deal. Placing blame is nice in hindsight but for the purposes of this review it’s how the events affected the show, and how the show itself dealt with a huge change in the issue at the heart of the show’s premise that I’m here to discuss.
First off, my congratulations for ditching the laugh track for this one. While there are still jokes to break the tension, the laugh track would have made it feel more tasteless than helpful. In the season two opener, “Promises/Wadaha” starts as the cast are at a karate competition for Reilly’s daughter Hazel when they news about the Taliban’s beginning retake. The rest of the episode is about getting Al’s sister, also an interpreter, out of the country. While Reilly tries to get help from his Marine friends still there (one of whom is also trying to get his interpreter out), a lot of people were trying to get out before they’re executed as traitors. I won’t spoil the ending.
There’s a trope in sitcoms referred to as “A Very Special Episode”, a rather mocking term for sitcoms trying to discuss heavier subjects. There was boom of these episodes in the 1980s covering varied subjects like death, drunk driving, date rape, drugs, epilepsy, and so on. The show Dinosaurs parodied this in their environmental episode when son Robbie comes out of character (but still a dinosaur) to say that if we took better care of the planet PSA episodes like that one wouldn’t have to be made anymore. (Yes, it could have been a different topic; I wasn’t a fan of the show.) I think the idea gets a bum rap frankly. Especially when these shows were targeting family viewing, aka kids with their parents to enjoy together, it used comedy to tackle some serious subject. While usually generalized an event that could traumatize kids (or at least someone perceived as such) could be used to explain why something happens, and an opening for a discussion between kids and their parents. On occasion this could be something specific, like the time the original Punky Brewster tackled the Challenger explosion. The secret is not to weaken the seriousness of the matter but using humor to take some of the sting out and allowing the audience to process things. It’s actually not a bad way to discuss these kinds of topics, whatever reason the producers and networks had for making them, when done right.
This show may not be a family show, despite the pre-teen daughter, but that was the strength of the episode. What’s more, unlike the topics listed above The United States Of Al had to address the situation. This is not an event they planned for and they had to put something together for the season premier. Whatever their plans, not starting on this despite the inciting incident happening just before they were to start recording was unavoidable based on the plot of the show and its theme of overcoming war. For the time they had I think they did a remarkable job. You feel for Al and his sister, only able to speak on the phone, with the audience having only the same perspective of events as the cast. Al’s sister only appears in flashback, and is only on the phone the rest of the time. The two flashbacks show how proud Al is of his sister and discussions of life under the Taliban and what is being lost, especially for women and girls as the Taliban enforce a very strict form of Islam that gives women zero rights, is also discussed. The final scene is moving as Al tells Hazel he’s heartbroken for his country.
One thing not discussed is the point I made at the start of this article. There is no blame given, no talk of what was left behind, which some may be annoyed by (however, Hollywood is dominated by a left-leaning world view so them saying anything negative about Biden’s decision would have been a shocker) but I think would take the focus away from the episode’s main concern, Al getting his sister out and mourning what is lost as the Taliban retake Afghanistan. Al is the title character. It’s his optimism that is supposed to be helping Reilly and Lizzie come to terms with what happened during the war. There is time later if they decide to for going over resentment at what appears to be a long-term win for the Taliban as they not only retake the country but with new access to better weapons and intel than they had before the war started.
How this affects Reilly, who saw his friends die over there and has suffered mentally from the experience, and Lizzie, who lost someone she loved during the conflict, is for future stories, but there’s also the question of the season they’ve already written. How many episodes can be altered to match the current status of Afghanistan and the Taliban is unknown to those of us on this side of the writing room and what they may have to toss out altogether and replace is also unknown. At some point, how they react to the situation will have to come into play, but at this point it’s Al’s story and that of his sisters. Having the cast sitting around talking about how they feel is secondary to getting the sister out of there and even if this was a more conservative crew politically doing so would have taken away from what the episode is about. Narratively they did the right thing whatever you may think politically.
Overall The United States Of Al was dropped right into a hard place right next to that rock. It’s not something they planned for but absolutely had to address to start the season, and will call for rewrites of episodes written and possibly even practiced. Given what they had to work with and were forced to deal with I praise the show for doing as well as it did. While my current backlog kept me from watching more episodes, and still does, I give credit where it’s due and under the circumstances they handled their responsibility very well.