TV TATTLE

Apple TV+'s Little America is dedicated to the immigrant experience -- not the politics of immigration

  • "The beauty of this production is that it never has to make that point with pro- or anti-immigration rhetoric, or with heavy-handed narratives that pit the huddled masses against a cruel, intolerant establishment," Lorraine Ali says of the Apple TV+ immigrant anthology series from Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. "The stories breathe on their own, thanks in part to the inclusion of actors and directors who often share the same county of origin with the characters they bring to life on screen. Each episode opens with music from the protagonist’s homeland, and an 'inspired by a true story' tagline in their native tongue, be it Spanish, Farsi, Arabic ..." Ali adds: "Little America is the crown jewel in the current wave of TV shows steeped in the idea of immigration as a quintessentially modern American story. Its fish-out-of-water narratives are painful and uplifting, funny and heartbreaking. But above all, each story is unique to the individual at its core. The real-life inspirations for these tales are shown at the close of each episode, which seals the deal in terms of the show’s authenticity, and speaks to the aspirational spirit of a nation built on the dreams of Nigerian cowboys, Mexican squash champions and young Indian entrepreneurs."

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    • Little America succeeds by staying focused on the positive aspects of being an immigrant: "Though the episodes clearly depict the hardships — from feeling lost and displaced to horrific acts of violence — Little America prefers not to dwell or drown in them," says Pilot Viruet. "Surely, some may find this to be disingenuous and inauthentic, which is a valid criticism. Little America, despite how much the individual stories differ from each other, does tend to take a similar overall approach to each episode: They are sometimes predictable, rarely surprising, and generally brimming with positivity. Every episode is neatly packaged; like clockwork, I found myself tearing up around the same minute mark for half of them. It can be argued that this isn’t providing the most honest look at immigrant life in America — which, to a degree, is certainly true — but conversely, it is succeeding at showing us a different side to the stories we’re so used to. It’s not pretending that these harsher realities don’t exist, nor is it implying that coming to America is a solution. Little America is trying to provide a truthful but optimistic look at the immigrant experience, and it mostly succeeds."
    • Little America is too saccharine, resulting in a sameness to the stories it tells: "Little America deserves the praise it will surely receive for opening viewers’ eyes to the overlooked stories around us, the stories that are told in languages besides English. For the most part, these vignettes are thoughtfully and pleasingly rendered," says Hank Stuever. "But there is, at the same time, something too uniform about them, a predetermined style of grace, not unlike the stories you hear people tell about themselves and their families on those vaguely irritating public radio shows. There’s a sameness to it that doesn’t seem like a theme so much as a strict format, which tends to undermine the goal of authenticity. The stories have been hammered into the same shape so that they are broadly satisfying and mainly cheerful, leaving little room for surprise or outrage or any other emotion that might overly complicate the structure."
    • Little America is one of the few anthology series that works:  "Watching Little America, I realized that my aversion to episodic anthology shows doesn’t have to do with the form itself," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It comes from the fact that it’s really, really hard to create characters wholesale, give them lived-in worlds, build an entire plot arc, and find wells of emotional complexity in the space of a single episode. I love stand-alone episodes and episodic storytelling in other TV series because they often capitalize on their own emotional complexity by using all the characters and worlds a series has already built. But few episodic anthologies have managed the trick of making entirely new stories each episode while also ensuring the emotional reality lands somewhere more complicated than 'aww' or 'oh no, dystopia.' Little America is one of the few that really pulls it off. Each episode is entirely different — different casts, different kinds of protagonists, with stories about immigrants from different countries. But while Little America’s main connective theme is 'immigrant stories,' the deeper and more meaningful through line is its refusal to bow to the simplicity of short truisms about its subjects. They are 'hard work pays off stories,' and they are 'immigration is hard' stories, yes. But each of them is also much more lovely and painful and complicated than those easy summations."
    • Little America avoids overt politics, making it a given the prerogative of immigrants to carve out a new home in their adopted country: "For a series comprising such seemingly disparate cultural and geographical elements, there's a sense throughout of care for each installment," says Inkoo Kang. "Every episode is introduced with music from the characters' country of origin and includes a bilingual 'inspired by a true story' tag, and several are directed by filmmakers who share an ethnic origin with their characters. Since many of the stories are set in the recent past, a nostalgic haze suffuses the series, as does a deep skepticism toward American foods. (I nodded along to a less-than-enthralled reaction to chocolate chip cookies, chuckled at an observation about pizza and may never look at a chili cheeseburger the same way again.)"
    • Little America serves as a counterbalance to the negative attention immigrants receive in this era: "We exist in the time of fury and bitterness over the state of immigration, and the writers and directors creating each Little America episode offer its tales as an optimistic counterbalance," says Melanie McFarland. "Every lithe episode is unique and hums with a different tone from one to the next, making this season a thematic quilt as opposed to one bolt of cloth. All of them hang together a celebration of the vastness and breadth of this grand experiment as it has played out across a number of decades as opposed to a critique of our present. And in making that choice, creators Lee Eisenberg, Emily V. Gordon, and Kumail Nanjiani gift the audience with a relief from the negative weight of current events without asking us to forget the existential threat posed by nationalism and xenophobia."
    • Little America is truly stirring, triumphant television: "At its high points, the show is beautifully uplifting, never saccharine or melodramatic," says Promo Khosla. "It steers away from the overtly political or distressing, but characters' quiet heartbreak in the face of adversity makes for some of the most evocative scenes. Family and freedom mean everything in these stories, and only when one or both are sacrificed as a cost for American life do we realize how precious that life is for so many. Characters spend years separated from parents or children in order to ensure a better life for their loved ones in the land of opportunity."
    • All eight stories successfully straddle many fine lines: "They are fleet – just half an hour long – without being insubstantial; uplifting without being schmaltzy; inspirational without being cringe-making," says Lucy Mangan. "They don’t offer direct commentary on current US and others’ attitudes towards immigration, but they don’t need to. It is enough to watch these stories set in the 70s, 80s and 90s unfolding in a recognisably different climate – so near, chronologically, to our own and so far in other ways."
    • Little America’s episodes are each brilliantly crafted, acted, directed, and written works of art
    • Co-creator Lee Eisenberg emphasizes that the "Little" in Little America is just as important as the "America": “I joke that the stakes aren’t, like, ‘The president’s daughter was kidnapped, what’s gonna happen next?'" says Eisenberg. “When you’re doing a story that takes place in an emergency room, the stakes are very high; they’re life and death. For the most part, with our episodes, that’s not the case at all. The stories are very personal, and the stakes are hopefully universal. ‘I want to provide a better home for my family’; ‘I want to fit in at a new school.’ Those kinds of themes and story lines are what we were chasing, and the fact that they were with people that are so rarely front and center was something that really excited us.”
    • How Aziz Ansari's Master of None inspired Little America: “I’ve been a writer for, might as well say 17 years, and I’m obviously thinking about the types of stories that I want to tell, what excites me, and also what I want to watch,” says Eisenberg. “And I was kind of looking at the way TV was evolving over the last few years, and I started thinking Master of None had done an episode in their first season, the ‘Parents’ episode that showed flashbacks to the parents of the characters and how their experiences growing up were affecting them, as far as how they arrived in the United States and also how their first generation didn’t quite understand what they had gone through. And I started thinking, ‘Well, that was one episode that everyone talked about…what if there was a show that touched on those same ideas?”
    • How Little America cast international actors under Trump's travel ban: "We kept adding casting associates because as much as possible we wanted to cast from the country of origin," says Eisenberg. "And you learn things. Like, there's a huge Nigerian acting population — it's called Nollywood — and they're incredible. Or we had an episode about a Ugandan woman who sells cookies in Kentucky, and the village in Uganda where we were casting lost electricity and we lost the tapes, and the embassy's only open one day and we needed visas. There are just logistics that you don't think about. We did a Syria episode, and the actors were from countries under the travel ban, so we ended up shooting a show about immigrants called Little America in Montreal."
    • Why Little America settled on the anthology format: "We weren’t really setting out to do anything radical," says Kumail Nanjiani. "It’s very easy to pigeonhole these types of stories — “the story of the immigrant is one of struggle and strife,” that kind of stuff. Obviously those stories exist and they’re valid, and some of them are in our show as well. But we really focused on the idea that every episode was going to be completely different, have a completely different tone."

    TOPICS: Little America, Apple TV+, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani, Lee Eisenberg, Immigration and TV




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