What could be more ordinary than a buddy comedy? It depends on the buddies, and Riley and Al (Parker Young and Adhir Kalyan) are something special.
Al, you see, is short for Awalmir, the name of the upbeat Afghan interpreter who in the fog of war earned the devotion and friendship of ex-Marine Riley. As United States of Al opens, Riley welcomes Al to America, whose land-of-plenty attributes instantly awe him: “Why do you people invade other countries when you can just stay here and eat?”
Back home in Columbus, Ohio, Riley introduces Al to his family, and this fish out of water can’t help meddling in his pal’s life: his busted marriage, the way he spoils his daughter. From the prolific Chuck Lorre, and created by The Big Bang Theory veterans David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, United States milks laughs from cross-cultural confusions and anxieties, like in Chuck Lorre’s most recent hit Bob Hearts Abishola. When Al goes to the DMV, it’s not the driving test that rattles him, but the closeness of the female examiner, who’s wearing shorts. (“I have never seen a woman’s legs,” he stammers, with all sound muffled except the agitated beating of his heart.)
It’s all mostly endearing, even when some of the jokes land too hard — especially when bellowed by Riley’s blustery dad, Art (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris). Kalyan brings a sly spin to Al’s naivete, and Young finds the vulnerability under Riley’s hunky machismo as he struggles to find purpose after his tour of duty.
Also hurting: Riley’s hard-partying sister, Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer), who lost her fiancé in combat and in one poignant episode fears she’s lost his dog tags during a drunken blackout. There’s an undercurrent of shared pain and loss amid the glib banter, reminding us of Lorre’s ability to nurture shows (i.e., Mom) about damaged people for whom laughter is the last resort.
Ultimately, Al’s incurable optimism is an inspiration to his new American family, making United States of Al a welcome addition to our own home front.
United States of Al, Series Premiere, Thursday, April 1, 8:30/7:30c, CBS