The optimists and dreamers who immigrated to the United States in the mid- to late 20th century, often with extraordinary sacrifice, may or may not have planned for their offspring to become comedians, actors, directors, screenwriters and streaming-TV producers. To buy into one oft-noted stereotype, they maybe hoped for doctors, engineers and other sure-bet professionals. One risk of obtaining a top-notch college education for your child is that they’ll fall in with the campus improv troupe or the film-studies crowd.
Their parents’ letdown is increasingly the audience’s reward, however, as 21st-century culture now thrums with compelling dramas and sharp comedies that draw directly from the immigrant experience, created by first-generation Americans. While part of the country makes a lot of useless noise about curtailing the flow of new people, the rest of us revel in the pop-cultural diversity boom. With 500 TV shows currently in production, surely there is bandwidth enough to tell everyone’s story.
This is the central idea behind Apple TV Plus’s eight-episode anthology series “Little America,” an array of half-hour narratives about the bewildered travails and life-affirming victories of various immigrant families, all based on true stories.
The show’s long list of producers includes Alan Yang, who helped bring Aziz Ansari’s memorable Netflix dramedy “Master of None” to life, and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (“The Big Sick”). From the first episode to the last, the tone is one of uplift. The lives seen here come with their share of suffering and often private anguish, but each story assiduously signs off on a positive note. America – both as a dream and in its grittier reality – comes off looking a lot better than it probably deserves at this particular moment in its history.
Each of these stories could have potentially been pitched as a stand-alone series. The first episode, titled “The Manager,” is about a boy named Kabir (Eshan Inamdar), who assumes management of his parents’ small-town motel in Utah after they’re deported back to India. He earns a trip to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, where finalists get a special visit to the White House and Kabir heartbreakingly begs then-first lady Laura Bush to help bring his parents back. (Don’t worry! They come back!)
From there, Episode 2 (“The Jaguar”) introduces us to Marisol (Jearnest Corchado), an undocumented Mexican teenager who responds to a flier advertising an urban squash league (lured by the promise of free athletic shoes) and finds that the sport gives her confidence and self-worth that transcend poverty.
The third episode – and maybe the best – is titled “The Cowboy,” following a young Nigerian immigrant named Iwegbuna (played by single-name actor Conphidance), who studies economics at the University of Oklahoma and finds solace in emulating the cowboy and Western aesthetic all around him. He eventually becomes a university dean.
On it goes, breezily and bingeably enlightening: A young Frenchwoman (Mélanie Laurent) falls in love at a silent meditation retreat in the woods; a Ugandan named Beatrice (Kemiyondo Coutinho) comes to the United States for college but eventually opens a bakery, selling homemade cookies from the basket she carries on her head, achieving local renown. A single mother from Singapore (Angela Lin) wins a luxury Alaska cruise for her and her two teenagers, where the relentless fun bums her out and brings back haunting memories of her childhood. In Syria, we meet Rafiq (Haaz Sleiman), a closeted gay man who flees to Jordan, where he awaits a chance at U.S. asylum.
“Little America” deserves the praise it will surely receive for opening viewers’ eyes to the overlooked stories around us, the stories that are told in languages besides English. For the most part, these vignettes are thoughtfully and pleasingly rendered here.
But there is, at the same time, something too uniform about them, a predetermined style of grace, not unlike the stories you hear people tell about themselves and their families on those vaguely irritating public radio shows. There’s a sameness to it that doesn’t seem like a theme so much as a strict format, which tends to undermine the goal of authenticity. The stories have been hammered into the same shape so that they are broadly satisfying and mainly cheerful, leaving little room for surprise or outrage or any other emotion that might overly complicate the structure.
After all, what could be more American than plastering on a big smile?
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“Little America” (eight episodes) begins streaming Friday on Apple TV Plus.