If HBO Max had a category bar for “Exquisitely Timed Programs,” Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness would be at the front. At the very moment that Americans are wrapping their heads around the notion that the daughter of an Indian woman and a Jamaican man is one step away from being one heartbeat away from the presidency, here comes Ravi Patel, returning to TV with an endearing and enlightening look at what is both unique and universal about South Asian immigrants.
Even if Kamala Harris hadn’t won the veepstakes, I think I’d still come away from this thoroughly enjoyable four-part docuseries feeling like this is Ravi Patel’s moment. You may remember him as the babied 30-year-old who endures the humiliating yet oddly uplifting experience of having his Indian parents find him a bride in the 2014 PBS doc Meet the Patels. That film was a quirky first-person cultural dive with strong hints of early Michael Moore and Judith Helfand.
The star of Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness is still a shlubby on-screen guide to adulting in 21st-century America. But he feels more grown-up now, and in each episode takes on the big questions that are hitting millennials — raising kids, caring for parents, thinking about politics.
And in a neat twist, Patel leaves America and embeds with other cultures in search of answers. At the risk of being obvious, Patel must be compared to Hasan Minhaj, whose just-cancelled Patriot Act (why, Netflix?) brought an appealing mix of globalism, social skills, and cheerful realism to news-comedy, much as Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness does to the rules of life.
This HBO Max series picks up a couple of years after Meet the Patels leaves off. Patel and his lovely non-Indian wife Mahaley now have children, which means his parents are now grandparents as well — and dropping by to visit more than ever. Patel loves it. “How lucky am I that I actually love spending two and a half hours in a car with my parents?” he says. “This is what I want more of.”
Oh lord no, you can almost see his wife thinking. For Mahaley, a little of her in-laws goes a long way. The first three episodes of Pursuit of Happiness starts that way, like a post on social media, all shiny and happy, but then very quickly Patel starts pulling back the layers. For Mahaley, motherhood began with post-partum depression (episode one) and a workaholic husband who knows he’s an inadequate parent (episode two) who was absent for all their baby’s firsts (episode three).
These are the everyday rust spots that tarnish the American dream for many young people, but what gives this show its appeal is that Patel, the son of immigrants, finds it perfectly natural to seek solutions somewhere other than America. In the first episode Patel takes his parents to a retiree village in Mexico, where they can contemplate a lively, margarita-filled final chapter to their lives surrounded by expats from around the world. Will this make them happy? Will this make Ravi happy? Will this make Mahaley — who cannot hide how suffocated she feels around Ravi’s parents — happy?
The second episode then turns to the young couple and how they themselves plan to parent their kids. At this point I should mention that Pursuit of Happiness was originally developed for CNN, which, as you may recall, had a thriving side hustle in travel programs, most notably with Anthony Bourdain’s last series Parts Unknown. In May, WarnerMedia announced that Patel’s show would not air on CNN but on its new streaming HBO Max.
As I’ve mentioned before, tossing all the WarnerMedia properties into one big dumpster is bound to create viewer confusion, especially when the dumpster has a shiny HBO decal slapped on it. Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness — you won’t forget the title, it keeps popping up where the CNN commercial breaks were supposed to go — doesn’t feel like an HBO show, but it’s fun and insightful, so maybe I should just let that go.
Anyway, the couple travel to Japan to see how people raise kids there. They’re fascinated by how even small children are treated as grownups-in-training. Kids practice straphanging on play subway trains and make their own school lunches. As we ponder this cultural distinction, boom, there’s a clip of Newt Gingrich of all people, telling some right-wing conference that he thinks American kids should be hired as janitors at their own schools. It would “re-establish the dignity of work,” sayeth Newt (oh, and break the service-workers union too). It’s a great example of outsider-insider thinking: Patel is insider enough to be clear-headed about Gingrich’s agenda, yet outsider enough to present one of Newt's ideas in a context that makes you think wow, the old philanderer from Georgia may have a point.
But as I said, Pursuit of Happiness doesn’t just go wider, it goes deeper. Ravi Patel has a way with words, and can draw surprisingly meaningful nuggets from his own life. Japanese culture is highly gendered, with women expected to do all of the child-rearing, and yet as Patel points out, he and his fellow doting dads back in L.A. aren’t much better. The typical American dad spends half as much time with their kids as Mom does. “No matter how woke you think you are,” Patel says, “traditional gender roles have a way of asserting themselves.”
In the episode about his parents and retirement, Patel notes how Americans are uncomfortable talking about death, and then deftly wraps that discovery around a childhood memory — his fear of getting separated from his parents. “That childhood fear of being left behind, it eventually comes true for all of us,” Patel says. He feels grateful to be considering his parents’ twilight years now instead of later, when it might be too late.
If you haven’t seen Meet the Patels, I’d actually recommend starting with that, since it feels of a piece with this new series, it’s easy to find on Kanopy and commercial streamers, and you can watch that and the first three Happiness episodes in a night or two. (It might also serve as a palate cleanser if you were unfortunate enough to watch the derivative Indian Matchmaking on Netflix.)
And then, stay for episode four, where the show takes an intriguing topical turn. As the son of immigrants, and a proud American, Patel is torn by the current immigration debate. So he travels to Denmark. “It’s known as one of the happiest places in the world — unless, that is, you’re an immigrant.” Danes are new to the whole welcoming-immigrants thing, and they’re not very good at it. As in every episode, he chooses a traveling companion, in this case “one of my brown buddies,” Vice contributor Abdullah Saeed. A cheerful Pakistani-American, Saeed helps Patel peel back the layers of Denmark, a country whose 92 percent white native population seems terrified of the other 8 percent.
The insights they come away with are both refreshingly and frustratingly simple: If you think we’re bad at immigration, try visiting a homogenous country. A good point we don’t make often enough. Patel also says our current immigration policy mess is very American — “we’re fighting because we’re changing,” he says. Also a good point. But I could turn that on its head and say we’re not changing because there was a fight 13 years ago between Republicans over John McCain’s perfectly good immigration bill, the haters won and then they got one of their own into the White House.
But that feels like a conversation that friends can have after watching this entertaining, useful, and uplifting series that I hope to see more of in the future.
Ravi Patel's Pursuit of Happiness premieres on HBO Max on August 27th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.