“Little America” Turns an Honest Eye to the Immigrant Experience

Little America Angela Lin, Kai To and Sophia Xu in “Little America” premiering January 17 on Apple TV+.

Apple TV+’s anthology series offers a complicated, relatable snapshot of the American melting pot.

How do I reconcile my identity with life in the United States? My mom came from Bulgaria in the ‘90s, begrudgingly, and my dad came from Bangladesh with money in his eyes. Then I was born, and life gave me the coveted American title “Child of Immigrants” —  in other words, the child of two regular people who just happened to live in a different country than the one they started in. 

Which brings us to Little America, a new Apple TV+ anthology series written by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon (both writers of The Big Sick), and Lee Eisenberg (The Office), adapted from the “Little America” profiles that appeared in Epic Magazine

Most media about immigrants is overly saccharine, a method of making immigrants more palatable to a xenophobic American audience. Little America promised to deliver “funny, romantic, heartfelt, inspiring and surprising stories of immigrants in America when they’re more relevant now than ever,” which, to me, implies more of the same kind of offensive pandering.

My tiny heart couldn’t handle another Hamilton. Thank God it didn’t have to.

Zachary Quinto in “Little America” premiering January 17 on Apple TV+.

One of Little America’s greatest virtues is that it knows that immigrants are just as messy, sleepy, and overbearing as any other American — in other words, human. We learn about Sylviane (Mélanie Laurent), a French immigrant who is terrified of being alone and disappointed by all of America’s rest stops; Rafiq (Haz Sleiman), a gay Syrian hiding from his disapproving father and brother; Faraz (Shaun Toub), a proud Iranian who confidently launches himself into dream after dream — like selling quail eggs (he informs us that they improve vision and have a satisfyingly large yolk) and building a mansion on top of an impossible boulder, and five others with their own pains and peculiarities.

Little America is sentimental for us, not about us for someone else. Since its episodes focus vary in time period, country of origin, and reasons for immigrating, Little America abstains from trying to deliver sweet generalizations about American immigration. The jumbled pictures of immigration it presents are too difficult to pin down. 

I (somewhat embarrassingly) cried at seven-out-of-eight episodes because I kept seeing myself and my family in it. Like when Beatrice’s (Kemiyondo Coutinho)  English-speaking son can only say a few words in Swahili, but his love for his grandmother gets across anyway. I see my own mother in Ai (Angela Lin), the Chinese immigrant who doesn’t want to let her children grow up since she’s been away from her own parents for so long. Like Faraz, I see myself defending my parents’ countries to a well-meaning American who doesn’t understand our history. You want to shake the other person — it was better there, but there are different opportunities here. That’s why I’m here. We miss it, but we’re here now. 

Little America abstains from trying to deliver sweet generalizations about American immigration.

The acting is believable, the sets seem true-to-life, the editing is smooth, which is all fine and unremarkable. Little America shines most in its writing, which is satisfyingly tear-inducing and tries its best to tell stories with some sort of emotional development, a potentially difficult task in a show that only has 33 minutes to get its audience to care about a character they only just met.

This endeavor is helped by the inclusion of small, weird jokes, which leavened the self-seriousness of the material while adding some depth that prevented the show from falling into the trap of banality. One of those jokes appears in the trailer for this season, where Ai is talking to a white cruise ship attendee at dinner. He asks her how she likes the ship, to which she responds “Everyone here is sad.” He keeps eating, and says “That’s everywhere, isn’t it? At least here they give you all-you-can-eat shrimp.”

Of course, he’s also talking about America: our big, brutal country of excess and dreams cut short — but at least you can get a McChicken just a block from your house. 

But it’s hard to always see your little life as political. Sometimes you want to laugh about it or reminisce about how far you’ve come and how much further you have to go. You think about waiting to hear back from the immigration office, like Mexican immigrant Marisol (Jearnest Corchado) does in a flurry of upward events paving a road to college. Or you remember your heart soaring when you heard Kelly Clarkson sing “I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly,” like Rafiq does his first time dancing in a gay club, healed and safe.

Sometimes that’s all you can do. 

Little America comes to Apple TV+ with open arms and a global eye on January 17th.

Little America Trailer:

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