According to its Apple TV Plus webpage, Little America is “an anthology of funny, romantic, heartfelt, inspiring, and surprising stories about the lives of immigrants in the United States.” Its first season, released this month on the streaming service, is a collection of eight half-hour stories about immigrants who are trying to make it in the US. It’s the best show Apple has produced so far, but it’s also the most misguided.
It almost hurts, considering the talent behind Little America. Created by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and Lee Eisenberg, just about every episode is an excellent half-hour of television. Each actor on-screen is wonderful to watch, warm and likable at all times. The array of brown faces in front of and behind the camera is dazzling: Uchenna “Conphidance” Echeazu, Eshan Inamdar, Kemiyondo Coutinho, and Tze Chun are actors and filmmakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. The stories they tell (all based on real life) stop just shy of being saccharine.
The trouble is the framing. Like many immigrant stories, they are about overcoming or confronting nigh-insurmountable hardships. In “The Manager,” protagonist Kabir is 12 years old when his parents are deported, and he must take over the family motel, raising himself and running a business while writing obsessively to the government about his parents being readmitted into the country. He will not see them in person again until he is an adult. In “The Son,” a gay Syrian man flees his family who reacted violently to discovering his orientation, crossing the border into Jordan in the hopes that he can one day claim asylum in the United States. “The Rock” is about an Iranian father who wants to purchase a home in the US but cannot afford it. Instead, he buys a plot of land with a massive, unremovable rock on it and commits to removing it, one chunk at a time. The house is never built.
Because Little America positions these stories as “inspiring,” it’s worth thinking about why.
The idea is that we do not see these people represented very often — people who, in the real world, suffer all manner of prejudice and setbacks because they have dared to live a life in a country that is not made for them, even as it postures as the land of opportunity. Little America, and works like it, exist as an act of empathy: look at these people. They just want the same simple things you do. A home, a business, a job, love. There are so many shades to the same story.
But the exceptional nature of Little America’s subjects plays into the idea that immigrants must earn our empathy, earn the right to be in the US, earn the mere chance to find happiness. In the US, stories like these are treated like a guidebook for citizenship if you’re a person of color and “inspiring” fodder for white people who want to believe themselves tolerant.
In another, more equitable pop culture landscape, maybe Little America would land better. There is room for stories like these, and it bears repeating: it’s pretty good television! What hurts the series most is its frequent refusal to acknowledge that there are reasons its characters struggle with such hardship. In Little America, coming to the United States to make a life is just hard, and the reasons are irrelevant — when, in fact, they are vital.
The episodes that rise above this are the ones that show why each character faces the plight they do. “The Son” makes it immediately clear why a gay man must flee his Syrian family. In “The Grand Prize Expo Winners,” a Chinese woman wins a cruise for herself and her children. During their time at sea, her dreams of the American life she has obtained and the dreams her children have after being raised in the US come into quiet conflict. The bittersweet nature of the immigrant experience is made tangible for half an hour.
These episodes are the exceptions. A good second season of Little America (which is already on the way) would follow their lead. A better one would ditch our cultural fixation on immigrant struggle porn entirely.
There is dignity in being unremarkable. A noble life can be lived by those who are not paragons, by people getting by on wages too small in homes that do not fit their families in less-than-desirable neighborhoods. Little America wants its audience to regard immigrants as fully realized people. But how can that ever happen when all they are shown are superheroes?
Disclosure: Little America is based on true stories originally published by Epic Magazine, a subsidiary of Vox Media, which is also The Verge’s parent company.