'Little America': TV Review

Apple TV+ finally has its first great show.
1/17/2020

Executive producers Alan Yang and Kumail Nanjiani offer a showcase of largely unknown acting and directing talent via their immigrant anthology show for Apple TV+.

For a series centered mostly on working-class immigrants of color with no marquee names and few recognizable faces, Apple TV+'s Little America manages to exude a quiet but unmistakable air of inevitability: such a series, however unlikely, was always meant to happen.

Part of that fated aura comes from the anthology show's aspirational stories, in which persistent, resourceful underdogs transform themselves into achievers of the improbable and the unusual ("immigrants, we get the job done," etc.). But part of it reflects the simple fact that the project of increasing pop-cultural representation is ongoing, with shortform, semi-(auto)biographical tales like Master of None's Emmy-winning, career-launching "Thanksgiving" episode serving as one template for expanding our ideas of whose lives are worth depicting on screen.

None of the stories in Little America — which counts among its executive producers Master of None co-creator Alan Yang — is as powerful or as perfectly crafted as Lena Waithe's "Thanksgiving," but a couple get mighty close, definitively making this series Apple TV+'s first great show.

Two decades ago, when television was less hospitable toward tales of, say, a 12-year-old Indian-American boy forced to run a motel on his own after his parents are deported or a Nigerian college student in Oklahoma who nurses fantasies of becoming a cowboy, their stories might have ended up as human-interest pieces in People. Little America itself has its origins in Epic Media, an imprint that specializes in "extraordinary true stories," according to its website, and if I were going to nitpick the show, there's perhaps a little too much of the individualistic triumphalism endemic to feel-good journalism — especially at the expense of portraying the crucial role many immigrant communities play in sustaining their members. (Full disclosure: I worked on a couple of stories for Epic's Little America collection in its earliest stages; neither of the pieces I adapted made it to publication.)

The show is also conspicuously reluctant to note any role that racism, xenophobia or any other larger institutional struggle might have on its protagonists' lives — most notably in an episode about a gay Syrian refugee, as President Donald Trump continues to keep out refugees in a move that affects those fleeing Syria most adversely.

But Little America's aversion to overt politics also makes sense for a series that accepts as a given immigrants' prerogative to carve out a new home in their adopted country. (And to be fair, "Thanksgiving" wasn't a slideshow about policy, either.) With Little America, showrunner Lee Eisenberg (who developed the half-hour drama with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon) opts for an intriguing blend of the familiar and the new. The first child (Kemiyondo Coutinho) of a large Ugandan family to go to college abroad can't live up to her parents' sky-high hopes for her — but she does manage to pay tribute to her father and her grandfather's artisanal talents in Louisville, Kentucky. A Chinese-immigrant single mother (Angela Lin) smothers her teenage children with maternal love and dependence — then finally learns to see herself outside of motherhood when they abandon her on an Alaskan cruise. Even the most seemingly conventional episode — starring Melanie Laurent, the best known of the central actors — is a mostly wordless rom-com set at a (vaguely hellish) silent retreat.

And for a series comprising such seemingly disparate cultural and geographical elements, there's a sense throughout of care for each installment. 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.)

Standout performers Coutinho, Lin and Conphidance, as the Nigerian professor-cowboy, make their episodes worthwhile, but the true accomplishments of this first season (with a second already greenlit by Apple TV+) are its bookend installments. Directed by Deepa Mehta, the series premiere, about the precocious motel manager (Eshan Inamdar) forced to raise himself, exemplifies the gentle strength and firm resistance to easy happy endings that are Little America's best assets. But the season's finale, centered on a persecuted Syrian man (Haaz Sleiman) searching for a queer oasis, might well be its pinnacle, as well as the series' baldest gambit to replace the Statue of Liberty. But where Emma Lazarus saw huddled masses, Little America sees dreamers.

Cast: Angela Lin, Conphidance, Jearnest Corchado, Kemiyondo Coutinho, Eshan Inamdar, Haaz Sleiman, Melanie Laurent, Shaun Toub
Developed by: Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
Showrunner: Lee Eisenberg
Premieres: Friday (Apple TV+)