CBS sitcom pivots to drama in opener about Afghanistan

“United States of Al,” the CBS sitcom about a Marine vet and his Afghan interpreter who lives with him in suburban Ohio, jettisoned its planned Season 2 opener on Aug. 12 when the US pulled out of Afghanistan.

Instead, its writers, several of whom are Afghan or Afghan-American, quickly penned a new episode about the impact of the pullout on interpreter Al (Adhir Kalyan) and his best friend, Riley (Parker Young) as the drama unfolded in real time overseas.

“I don’t think we would have done [the episode] if the staff hadn’t wanted it so much,” said David Goetsch, who co-created the series with Maria Ferrari, both of whom spoke to The Post.

“You have to tell the story,” he said, “and if we’re not going to do an episode like this, then why have this show?”

In the season premiere, “Promises/Wadaha,” airing Thursday (Oct. 7) at 8:30 p.m., Al frantically tries to get his sister, Hassina (Sitara Attaie), out of the country when the Taliban take over — while Riley does all he can to help as the situation unfolds over a week’s time and real-life scenarios jeopardize Hassina’s safety.

“We knew this would be an issue we would be dealing with this season, but we didn’t anticipate that it would unfold in quite the way it did,” said Ferrari. “We had been using our best guesses and writing episodes anticipating [the pullout] … but we didn’t realize how responsive we were going to be.”

“The challenge of writing [the episode] so quickly was nothing compared to the challenges of our colleagues who were trying to get sisters and brothers and sisters-in-law out of Afghanistan,” Goetsch said. “Chase [Millsap], our military adviser [a former Marine infantry and Army Special Forces officer], helped Habib [Zahori], our writer; they were on the phone together when Habib’s sister was 50 feet away from the [airport] gate. She was able to get out after great challenges.

“We heard those phone calls in the way that Al and Riley hear them in their garage and being impacted by this story halfway around the world,” he said. “In our own way, we experienced how our colleagues were going through similar situations.”

The episode was shot without a laugh track; that will return in the Oct. 14 episode. “In the second episode the characters will be making jokes and there will be laughter,” Goetsch said. It’s going to be a little more about where Riley is; he goes to therapy for the first time and at the end of Season 1 he sought out help at the VA, and we’re touching on some of the consequences of the end of the war in Afghanistan.”

Ferrari said that politics didn’t come into play regarding Thursday’s season opener.

“It’s kind of outside the purview of a sitcom to say how a 20-year war should be concluded,” she said. “I think the only sort of political position of the episode is that we owe our Afghan allies and helpers the safety they were promised. If those promises were not honored, or haven’t been honored yet … the show has something to say about it. I think that’s the extent of our lane.”

“The premise of the show from when we started working on it a couple of years ago was to create a world of characters who were impacted by the aftermath of the war,” Goetsch said. “That always was the show — and will be, going forward.”


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