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‘United States of Al’ has good intentions, but not many laughs

“United States of Al” has engendered advance debate over its depiction of an Afghan character, but the show plays less as offensive than dated and uninspired, built on ancient fish-out-of-water sitcom conventions. A US veteran and his Afghan interpreter sound like a logical TV odd couple, but the few tender moments work better than the broadly comic ones.

The series falls under the supervision of heavyweight producer Chuck Lorre (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Young Sheldon”), officially giving him stewardship of CBS’ entire Thursday comedy block. Being prolific in TV, however, usually means your luck eventually runs out, and “Al” has the feel of an idea that sounded better during the pitch than in the execution, with the laughs ending up lost in translation.

The pilot opens with Riley (Parker Young) greeting Awalmir, a.k.a. Al (Adhir Kalyan), at the airport, having worked for years to bring him from Afghanistan to the US. Al’s wide-eyed vision of America is expressed through a relentlessly upbeat demeanor, one that frequently references cultural differences with his homeland.

Al finds Riley at his own crossroads, having separated from his wife (Kelli Goss) and moved in with his crusty father (“Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris). Dad means well, but he’s a little fuzzy on the details, which might explain why keeps doing things like offering a beer to the new arrival, a practicing Muslim.

Because everything is new to Al, that’s perhaps inevitably the primary source of the comedy. He sees owning a lawnmower as a sign of wealth, and chides Riley’s young daughter for not treating her elders as respectfully as she would if he were still back home.

Aside from the war in question, most of this wouldn’t look out of place in a sitcom from the 1980s or ’90s — think “Perfect Strangers,” just with more cultural specificity.

The show’s most redeeming feature involves its more sober elements, from Riley drinking too much — and occasionally struggling with adjusting to civilian life — to Riley’s sister (Elizabeth Alderfer), whose fiancé was a casualty of the conflict.

Those exchanges seldom last, however, as the episodes pretty quickly move on to situations like Al getting his driver’s license, or trying to convince Riley’s defiant tyke to eat her spinach.

Created by “Big Bang” alumni David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, the series counts several Muslim writers among its producing team, including religious scholar Reza Aslan, who defended the show when criticisms arose on social media based on previews.

The series inherits an enviable timeslot, following Lorre’s established hit “Young Sheldon.” Yet it’s possible to come away thinking “United States of Al” has its heart in the right place, and still conclude, strictly in TV terms, that it simply isn’t very good.

“United States of Al” premieres April 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

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