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Little America

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Little America is an Apple TV+ anthology series released last month. Based on the column of the same name in Epic Magazine, it dramatizes the true stories of immigrants in the United States in eight half-hour episodes. Stories range in time period from the 70s and 80s to the late teens, and focus on characters from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The show has a storied production staff, but the names that stood out to me were the husband-and-wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who demonstrated their skill at transforming a charming personal anecdote into compelling fiction with their Oscar-nominated script for The Big Sick, and Alan Yang, co-creator (and co-writer and co-star), with Aziz Ansari, of Master of None, a series that excelled at turning out finely-honed, funny-yet-bittersweet half-hour stories.

With all that talent behind the scenes, it’s not surprising that Little America is instantly engaging. The stories it tells are deliberately small and unsensational, focusing more on feelings of alienation and homesickness than on the challenges of arriving and surviving in America, and always with a feelgood ending. The series is also a great showcase for POC actors, including those not based in the US. Standouts include Conphidance in the episode “The Cowboy”, as a lonely Nigerian economics student in early 80s Oklahoma, who finds himself drawn to cowboy culture; Kemiyondo Coutinho in “The Baker”, as a Ugandan single mother struggling to make ends meet in late-70s Kentucky, while fending off her family’s demands that she return home; and Angela Lin in “The Grand Prize Expo Winners”, as an indefatigable Chinese mother who is dismayed when her American-born teenage children start pulling away from her. But really, there isn’t a dud here on either the acting or the writing front. Every episode will leave you feeling both won over and wrung out.

What I want to talk about, though, are the decisions the show makes in its attempt to court an audience. A project like Little America—the show and the column it was based on—has an obvious political objective, and it’s fascinating to observe how the choice of stories, and the perspective from which they’re told, serves that agenda. You see this, for examle, in how the show carefully eases its audience into the necessity of subtitles. The first episode contains almost no non-English dialogue. The second episode is mostly in English with a bit of Spanish. (Not coincidentally, these are both stories about young people—children and teens—who were born or grew up in the US, wheras later episodes are about older immigrants, who often find themselves struggling to relate to their Americanized children.) By the end of the season, the amount of subtitles has increased so much that the final episode is almost entirely in Arabic, with a bit of English.

But the most obvious calculation Little America makes is in its choice of characters and stories to focus on. Almost to a one, the immigrants depicted here embody all the familiar positive stereotypes: they are hard-working and industrious, family-oriented, open to new opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, genuinely in love with America and its opportunities. They are academics, entrepreneurs, athletes, and artisans. People with a lot to give, who find in America the freedom to express and make the most of themselves—in the episode “The Manager”, an Indian-American boy who manages his parents’ motel while making it to finals of the national Spelling Bee; in “The Jaguar”, an undocumented teenager who becomes a squash champion; in “The Baker”, a struggling single mother who opens one of Kentucky’s first fresh-baked cookie businesses. Many of them come to America because of the educational opportunities it offers, for themselves—”The Cowboy”, “The Baker”—or for their children—”The Rock”, in which an Iranian man leaves an affluent life back home because he wants better opportunities for his son. (It feels telling that the one glaring exception, the episode “The Silence”, centers around a character who comes to America on a lark and just decides to stay, whose professional ambitions we learn nothing about, and who is also the lone white European among the season’s protagonists.)

You finally have to conclude that in order to achieve its goal of depicting immigrants in ways that make them look good, Little America also has to make America look good. For a lot of the characters here, “the land of opportunity” is something they both believe in, and make true through their own hard work and ingenuity. It’s also a gentler, more welcoming place than the one you see in most discussions of immigration nowadays. Requests for asylum take time to process, but eventually they’re granted. Undocumented immigrants are naturalized. And racism and xenophobia are almost entirely absent. Characters experience only the mildest of microaggressions—while attending a fundraiser for her squash league, the heroine of “The Jaguar” is embarrassed when one of the guests realizes that her mother cleans another guest’s house; a policeman struggles with an unfamiliar surname—and are more often greeted with good-natured acceptance. When Coutinho’s Beatrice balances a basket on her head in “The Baker”, her American friends pronounce it a “superpower”, and urge her to use it as a marketing gimmick for her cookie business. In “The Cowboy”, Conphidance’s Iwegbuna struggles to connect with his professor due to a combination of personal and cultural hang-ups, but bridges the gap that alienates him from American culture when he embraces a cowboy persona, an effort at which he’s quietly aided by several Oklahoma locals.

Perhaps the closest the series comes to criticizing the US’s immigration policies is in “The Manager”, in which twelve-year-old Kabir (Ishan Gandhi), whose parents have been forced to return to India while they await a decision about their asylum request, hatches a plan to get to the final of the national Spelling Bee in order to meet first lady Laura Bush, and plead his parents’ case. He’s met with kind but ultimately empty words, but the episode’s happy ending, in which Kabir’s parents are finally able to return to the US, soothes the sting of that response.

It’s notable, in fact, that the hardship Little America‘s characters experience almost always comes from elsewhere. Iwegbuna, who had originally planned to return to Nigeria at the end of his studies, decides to stay in America after a military coup in his country. In “The Grand Prize Expo Winners”, Lin’s Ai struggles with her children’s increasing distance not only out of ordinary maternal attachment, but because of her own experiences of being passed from one adoptive family to another due to China’s One Child Policy. Most notable is the season’s final episode, “The Son”, in which a gay Syrian cook (Haaz Sleiman) flees violence after his family discovers his sexual orienation, and finds acceptance and camaraderie in the US. In a season that is pointedly gentle, this is the most violent episode, with multiple shots of bruised and battered bodies. It’s also the one episode that takes place almost entirely outside the US’s borders, which doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

As much an act of propaganda as it is an act of storytelling, Little America may teach us what it takes to get audiences to sympathize with immigrants in the face of rampant vilifaction by politicians and the media. Empathy, yes, but also no small amount of pandering and self-congratulation. It’s a good show, and the stories it tells are uplifting and inspiring, but under the surface it is also very canny and calculated—probably with good cause.

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