It’s sad, amid a wave of such positive, nuanced, complex depictions of immigrants on TV, that the United States Al had to launch this month in the US.
“How do you say, ‘We’re so happy to see you’ in – what language do they speak in Afghanistan? Afghan? “is the front line of a new show about an American veteran whose Afghan friend Al comes to live with him in the US. Chuck Lorre, a writer known for other big hits like The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne and The Kominsky Method, knows he is one of two mother tongues states pasta, not “Afghan” – that’s what he wrote in the script in the next line – but what better way to indicate how irrelevant you think another country is than to write in a joke that is a punchline question that Google could answer in a second?
The show is about a Muslim and a U.S. Army veteran, but is clearly written for people who identify with Parker Young as Riley – a rough white man going through a divorce and dealing with alcohol issues – instead of for those who identify with Al.
Maybe we should have known when the protagonist’s name was shortened from Alwalmir to “Al”. And if that failed, then it should be clear that when the show starred a South African actor (Adhir Kalyan) of Indian descent with a false accent for its main Central Asian character, it was written for people not to notice or worry about the difference.
But it is also clear from the script that Al should not be considered very interesting, let alone relative. In the fourth episode, it’s easier to identify with peripheral characters like Riley’s sister Lizzie (who mourns the death of her husband) or his wife Vanessa than Al, whose entire past seems like he doesn’t drink or go out, loves tea and comes from a country that can be compared to the American Burning Man festival, where – in Lorre’s words, not mine – “people run around like crazy, set everything on fire and then leave”.
Al is a character who doesn’t threaten and who is always so grateful to be in the US. He does not like to impose his religious standards on other people; he presents his friends with rugs handmade by his uncle and praises many American practices – such as how buckets have wheels here!
He is an interpreter who speaks several languages, but nevertheless routinely disrupts his grammar and cannot properly get phrases like “double standards”; a man who bargains in a store, as if there is no supermarket in Afghanistan and has never known before that in the US people stop at traffic lights.
In other words, he is the archetype of the “good immigrant”, whose sole purpose is to be joking and help the show’s white characters find happiness.
Lorre has a past form in this – he, after all, wrote The Big Bang Theory, whose only non-white central character is Rajesh Koothrappali, whose main character traits are his Indian accent and the way he can’t talk directly to women, and whose parents they always try to arrange a arranged marriage for him. And there is, of course, that little bit of constant Indian jokes. “I made chicken. Now I hope it’s not one of the animals that people think is magic, “says Sheldon Cooper’s mother Raj in one episode.
Compare this to some of the more exciting immigrant characters we’ve had on television recently and you’ll see that such depictions are as regressive as they are sloppy. In the Golden Globe-winning Ramy Youssef show of the same name, Ramy, you see the way his parents move through the pressures, cultural differences, and contradictions of U.S. immigrants while raising American children. They are not a role model for citizens: they make unpleasant mistakes, constantly insult the United States and question their values (as is their American law), and you see that their morals are sometimes questionable, their motivation sometimes useful.
One episode, shown through the eyes of Ramy’s mother Maysa – whose first language is not English – goes wrong when she tries to bypass pronouns. After being suspended from her new job as a Lyft driver, Maysa feared the reprimand would affect her application for citizenship and realized she had mistakenly sexed a passenger who might have reported her. It’s hilarious and, yes, difficult. It shows a ridiculous demand that non-citizens know more about a country than its citizens (as if it were some measure of patriotism or a confirmation of someone’s right to a free life without fear of deportation). It clearly explains the daily tribute that immigration processes take people’s lives – relentlessly shifting codes and gratitude – and also shows you that Maysa can be self-motivated, backward, and parochial. Just like any other American.
In Pen15, the real mother of writer Maya Erskina, Matsuko Erskine, plays her mother on screen and defies the “strict Asian” stereotype often reserved for Asian mothers on TV, perhaps most perfectly captured in Gilmore Girls, where she is the mother of best friend Lane Kim is the epitome of the terrifying “tiger mom.” In contrast, Erskine’s award-winning Emmy show about the awkward, horny, hilarious temptations and troubles of teenagers follows Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and her best friend Anna Konkle through puberty. In one episode, Kone stays with Ishii-Peters while her parents retire to repair their marriage, a more inventive turn than the usual story of an Asian kid who finds freedom in the homes of his white friends, where activities that their immigrant parents would not approve of must be engaged.
All of this means that the portrayal of immigrants on TV has seemed to turn for the better in recent years. We’ve gone through days of regressive, rigid stereotypes – the mother of a tiger, a repressed immigrant trying to learn how to be more American, a strictly religious outsider – and further to portrays immigrants who truly grapple with what it’s like to be first and foremost human, and someone who moved from another country to another.
For shows that still can’t grasp that concept, we have to ask: who are they for? They are certainly not for people who look like me.