When Hollywood tells immigrant stories, its cameras often seem especially eager to dwell on suffering. The poverty, oppression, and sacrifices many immigrants endure in their journeys to America, and the racism and xenophobia that greet non-white people here are common strains, after all, of generations of real stories from diverse countries of origin. Apple TV+’s anthology series Little America takes a different approach. It tells eight real-life immigrants’ (only lightly fictionalized) stories with an emphasis on the heart and humor of their everyday lives, aiming to affirm and inspire with their hard-won achievements. More importantly, it paints portraits of them as real, ordinary people—as fuck-ups, goofballs, dreamers, and drifters, as flawed and uncertain as every other American.
It’s a funny and bittersweet series, at once refreshing and achingly familiar—if at times a bit discomfiting in its careful avoidance of the uglier realities of living as a working-class immigrant in America.
That the series hails from creatives with intimate connections of their own to the immigrant experience (Master of None’s Alan Yang, The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and showrunner Lee Eisenberg) is plain from its first episode, in which the young son of two Indian hotel managers in Utah is left to run the hotel on his own after his parents are deported. None of the series’ eight half-hour vignettes reference current or past anti-immigrant rhetoric, allowing each story to center an individual rather than a message. It’s not hard to see why. The impulse over the last four years to see pro-immigration media as some middle finger to Trump often has the effect, intended or otherwise, of making other people’s stories all about him. Little America goes to pains to resist that. Instead, it sees its protagonists’ lives the way they primarily do: as full, complex, and often difficult, but not directly in light of American politics.
The matter-of-factness with which no one ever doubts each character’s place in the U.S. can be invigorating. A high-school troublemaker born in Mexico but raised in America half-accidentally discovers a talent and passion for squash, excelling all the way to international tournaments. That she is undocumented is one aspect of her story, but not the defining one. A French woman at a new-age silent retreat falls in love with a rugged American who, like her, is too fidgety to find the whole thing less than insufferable. That she can’t speak English is the last thing we learn about her, only after we’re acquainted with her imagination, humor, and loneliness. Each episode introduces a new person full of quirks and insecurities, many of them driven to be exceptional, a few less so. They are preoccupied by sports, romance, motherhood, the fear of disappointing their parents—the stuff of everyday American life that does not change depending on who’s president.
Most of the immigrants depicted in the series first published their stories in a 2017 Epic magazine series also titled “Little America”; their photos appear at the end of each episode, along with a reliably uplifting summary of where their lives took them after the events of the episode. The Igbo man from Nigeria fascinated by cowboys who found himself cut off from home became dean of his Oklahoma college’s economics department. The Ugandan woman disowned by her mother for failing to live up to her family’s lofty idea of success opens up a bakery, impresses her mom, and becomes the pride of Louisville, Kentucky. Each tidy parting inspires a smile. But to its credit, the series occasionally lets life’s messiness sit, too. The Indian boy’s deported parents eventually return, but by then years have passed, the boy is almost grown, and the feeling of being a son again is almost foreign to him. The last we see of him, he is sitting between them as they watch TV on their first night back in America, his expression both tender and conflicted.
The series’ strongest episodes are the ones that accept unsolvable questions without offering easy answers. “The Grand Expo Prize Winner,” a lovingly-crafted study of the inevitable gulf that opens up between immigrant parents and their American-born children, presents a middle-aged Chinese mom with the challenge of defining herself beyond motherhood. By episode’s end, she does not find a new lease on life through some new love or ambition; this is not a Nancy Meyers movie. She watches a gorgeous sunrise atop a cruise deck and simply continues being the best mom she knows how to be, and that’s enough. (Her real-life son, Tze Chun, wrote and directed the episode.) In the season finale, “The Son,” a gay man from Syria never reconciles with his homophobic father. His father doesn’t smile or betray relief when his son writes him a brief letter letting him know he’s OK. But in a small town in Idaho, the son finds solace in a queer community that welcomes him, and that’s enough, too. It has to be for him.
For the most part, only fleeting instances of condescension, tone-deafness, and the occasional bureaucratic slog mar the series’ idealistic vision of America and its attitudes toward immigrants. That is a far more generous depiction than the country actually merits. (And it’s often unclear whom that generosity is meant to assuage.) Yet I admit, it’s also an unabashed relief to see immigrant stories depicted onscreen the way the ones I know in life feel: both mundane and heroic, ordinary and unbelievable, here reflected with nuance and cultural specificity.
An understanding of the stakes of immigrant life runs through all eight of Little America’s stories. How the ups and downs of everyday life hit harder when a whole family’s dreams rest on an individual’s shoulders. The pressure to succeed, to be extraordinary. The homesickness—realized vividly in the standout episode “The Cowboy,” which may have also ruined cheeseburgers for me forever—and the ways families can’t help but drift apart across distance and time. These stories don’t need outright villainy to be compelling enough for the screen. They ring true, and that can be enough.
Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here