Nearly two months ago, the world watched with shock and horror as the most botched military withdrawal in U.S. history took place. Much of network television has since moved on, including CBS news. But CBS's unique sitcom United States of Al tackled the Afghanistan debacle head-on this week.
United States of Al is about Riley (Parker Young), a Marine living in Ohio, and the Afghan interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan), he brings to live with him. The show is a rare sitcom that portrays a Midwest American military family in a positive and realistic way. All the characters, from the interpreter to the Marine and his relatives, feel authentic. This is likely because "the writing staff includes five Afghans and seven military veterans," according to the Hollywood Reporter. So when Kabul fell within days instead of months, despite the assurances of President Biden, many of the series' writers were themselves desperately scrambling to get American allies out.
This week's episode, "Promises/Wadaha," on Thursday, October 7, mirrors those writers' experiences. It pulls no punches about the mess allies and heroic individual Marines were forced to grapple with at the airport in Kabul.
As the episode begins, Al, Riley and Riley's ex-wife Vanessa (Kelli Goss) are at a martial arts class for Riley's daughter, Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie). Al gets a message on his phone from a fellow interpreter in Herat. Riley whispers to Vanessa about the evolving situation.
Riley: The Taliban took Herat.
Vanessa: I thought you said that wasn't going to happen.
Riley: I did.
Soon Al is on the phone in the car talking with his scared sister, Hassina (Sitara Attaie), while Riley communicates with a Marine in Afghanistan named Todd. The audience can hear Hassina's terrified voice on the line.
Hassina: In other cities, the Taliban are going door to door looking for people who worked with foreigners. I worked with the U.N.
Al: Hassina, listen to me. Nothing is going to happen to you. You have a Visa, you will be safe in Turkey.
Hassina: But we were making progress here. (Crying): Now it's all disappearing and there's nothing I can do about it.
Riley: (Phone chimes) Hey, I got Todd.
Al: Hold on a minute, Hassina.
Riley: What do you got?
Todd: They're deploying Marines to Kabul.
Riley: What for? What's the mission?
Todd: I heard evac, but I-I don't know.
Riley: (Sighs) All right, call me back when you know more.
Todd: Copy that.
Hassina: Did he say they're sending the Marines?
Hassina: To evacuate us?
Al: They're not coming for you.
As we now know, the White House did not adequately plan to save vetted and confirmed Afghan allies or even fellow Americans, hundreds of whom are still trapped in Afghanistan. (The plight of Americans trapped under the Taliban has almost completely disappeared from American media.) However, the Biden administration did allow in numerous unvetted Afghans, some of whom have committed sexual assaults on U.S. military bases.
You cannot blame Al and Riley for feeling so caught off guard by the sudden situation. After all, in July, President Biden assured the American people that “there’s gonna be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
"I didn't think it was going to happen this fast," Riley says. "No one did," Al replies. Al reflects on the life his relatives will experience again once the Taliban is in full control of Kabul.
Al: They will ban music again, no school for girls. Have I ever told you that we were not allowed to fly kites under the Taliban?
Riley: Why not?
Al: They said there were angels flying in the sky and our kites were harassing them.
Soon Al and Riley learn that the government in Kabul has fallen. "What about all the interpreters? How the hell we gonna get 'em out?" Riley's father asks. "It's messed up," Riley answers.
The characters focus on getting Hassina out because she will be a Taliban target due to her work with U.S. allies. Through dialogue over the phone, the episode dramatically captures the chaos at the airport. Hassina opens a map on her phone while Al and Riley navigate her through the airport rush to a gate where a Marine will let her through. Gunshots can be heard in the background. Finally, she makes it onto a flight to Turkey.
The episode understandably remains laser-focused on Hassina's attempt to get to the gate. It does not cover the Kabul airport bombing that left 13 Marines dead or the Afghans seen falling from planes. But through Al and Riley's interaction with the Marine at the gate, it does show the military professionalism in the midst of an insane situation.
Hollywood and the U.S. media, which initially covered the Afghanistan disaster, have now chosen to largely ignore the botched withdrawal, a failure that resulted from shocking levels of incompetence by the Biden administration. United States of Al generally does not get too political and instead focuses on the individual human struggles of its characters. Through the eyes of these characters, it deserves credit for capturing a tragic moment in history that network television is otherwise choosing to ignore.