When Riley, a Marine veteran, was asked to speak at a fundraiser for interpreters awaiting their visas, the attention and praise was too much. Feeling panicked, he had to walk away and get some air.
It’s a scene — one of the many challenges of homecoming — that veterans and their families might recognize. The difference, this time, is that it’s on TV.
“United States of Al,” created by Maria Ferrari and David Goetsch and produced by Chuck Lorre, debuted this spring on CBS. The sitcom centers around Riley, a Marine returning from combat in Afghanistan, and his friend, Awalmir, better known as Al, an Afghan interpreter with his unit who has secured a visa, as they adjust to life in Riley’s hometown.
“This is an opportunity to take the military world that we all knew and bring it to a larger audience,” said Chase Millsap, a consultant on the show and chief content officer for We Are the Mighty.
It helps that there’s plenty of lived experience contributing to the show. The writing staff includes a Navy veteran, a Marine spouse and an Afghan who worked as a translator for the New York Times.
“We try to ground it in as much reality as possible, and then we try to take an entertaining flair to it,” said Millsap, who served for 10 years, five with the Marines (including three combat tours in Iraq) and five with the Green Berets.
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While “United States of Al” is a sitcom, finding humor as Al (Adhir Kalyan), the Afghan interpreter-turned-fish out of water, encounters American experiences for the first time, it also deals with serious topics.
Al shares similarities with an Iraqi who saved Millsap’s life, and whom he calls “the captain.” Millsap tried, unsuccessfully, to help the captain and his family secure visas to find safety in the U.S., a journey he described in a 2016 documentary.
“These are people who stood by us, so now it’s our time to stand by them,” Millsap said.
Al, the character, was able to come to the U.S., but more than 18,000 Afghans, many of them interpreters, are still awaiting decisions on their Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs. As the U.S. prepares to formally end its Afghanistan mission, the Biden administration said at the time of reporting that it planned to begin evacuating interpreters whose lives are at risk starting in July.
The cast and crew have tried to publicize the plight of interpreters like Al.
“Not everyone is as lucky as Al,” said Kalyan, in a PSA recently produced for No One Left Behind, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families navigate the SIV process.
“We want to tell this story so that we can change the narrative and shine a light on the situation, and hopefully bring these guys to safety — or at least as many of them as we can,” Parker Young, the actor who plays Riley, said in an interview.
As for Riley’s character, Young’s role provides an intimate look at the struggles a veteran experiences when he returns home. To prepare, Young drew on his friendship with a group of Navy SEALs, some of whom have transitioned back into civilian life and struggled with the change. He also leaned heavily on Millsap’s experience and input, going with him at one point to visit Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
In Young’s observation, there are numerous factors that can make the homecoming process challenging. The loss of mission, grief over those who didn’t make it back and the departure from a “high-adrenaline lifestyle” are a few.
“People in this world don’t operate at that same level, and I think that can be really confusing,” Young said.
One topic that Young and Millsap have discussed, as they’ve worked on the show, is the absence of a clear homecoming procedure for transitioning veterans.
“Because there’s no one path, that gives us a lot of legroom to have Riley’s character explore things,” Millsap said.
“The Fundraiser,” episode 106, where Riley has to walk away before a speech he was supposed to give, was a special episode for both Millsap and Young.
“That weight of the world, it does feel like it falls on you sometimes. Especially after service, when it’s really not your job. You do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Millsap, who helped to write Al’s speech for the episode.
“It’s a lot to take on, and we try to do it in 22 minutes,” he said. “That’s the challenge and also the fun of this kind of storytelling.”
“United States of Al” is in its second season, airing on CBS Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT.