Growing up gay in Syria, Shadi Ismail feared, almost more than anything, being discovered. When he was inevitably caught with a man, his father delivered a brutal beating, punctuated with a red-hot hookah charcoal on his arm. This is what it feels like in hell, he told his 17-year-old son.
Last week, sitting on the living room couch in the home he shares with his husband, Ian, in Boise, Idaho, Ismail was given a special screening of Apple TV Plus’s new scripted series “Little America,” which premieres Friday. It was not easy viewing.
“The Son,” one of eight episodes in the dramatic anthology, follows Ismail as he flees Syria, hides in Jordan and perseveres until he eventually makes his way to the American Northwest. Ismail, 32, said he was moved to tears by actor Haaz Sleiman’s portrayal.
“All my life I was hoping to see a gay, Arabic man on TV,” he says. “In our culture, we’re told we should be killed because nobody wants us. And then it turns out my story will be the one on TV.”
“Little America” is a television show that doesn’t necessarily feel like television. There are no stars, and the plot twists in ways that can be satisfying as well as deeply depressing. Each episode documents a different immigrant’s story, from a Nigerian college student trying to cowboy up in Reagan-era Oklahoma to an Iranian father so desperate to own property the he buys a house lot occupied by a massive, unmovable rock.
What might be surprising, at a time of border walls and family separations, is how little is overtly political. Former first lady Laura Bush is the only White House figure portrayed on screen.
“We want these stories to stand on their own,” says Kumail Nanjiani, “The Big Sick” star and one of the show’s executive producers. “We don’t want this to be a medicine show, a message show. It seems like immigration’s a big topic now but obviously immigration’s always been a big topic.”
If “Little America” seems an unlikely product in a medium rooted in star vehicles, the explanation may rest in the clout of the team behind the show. Along with Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the executive producers include “Masters of None” co-creator Alan Yang and Lee Eisenberg (“Good Boys,” “The Office”).
All but one of the “Little America” episodes are plucked from the spare, first-person accounts published two years ago in Epic Magazine. Epic, which began online, has become a kind of incubator for magazine journalism that film and TV producers have found increasingly attractive. It’s represented by Creative Artist Agency.
Nanjiani and Gordon said that after “The Big Sick,” their semi-autobiographical, critical and commercial smash film, they were besieged by offers. This is the only project they agreed to help produce.
“Everything on television, you hear, ‘it’s this meets this.’ ” Says Nanjiani. “This show had not been done before.”
The idea started with Eisenberg. Three years ago, he approached Joshuah Bearman, Epic’s co-founder, whose 2007 piece in Wired had been turned into the Oscar-winning “Argo.” Epic had been contemplating a photo essay project for the magazine rooted in first-person accounts. Eisenberg talked to Bearman about his own family – Eisenberg’s father grew up in Israel before moving to the States – and his desire to do something on immigration in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. After the Epic profiles were published, Bearman signed on as one of “Little America’s” executive producers.
“Little America” might not look like other projects, but Eisenberg, also the showrunner, says it was influenced by “Master of None.”
“You hadn’t had a lead who looked like Aziz (Ansari, co-creator and star), talking about immigration and talking about assimilation,” says Eisenberg. “That was one of the first inspirations for me, when they did the episode about the parents and these first-generation Americans didn’t understand the sacrifice these parents made. What if there was a show where every episode felt like that?”
“Little America” digs into the same thematic territory Ansari and Yang explored and, more recently, Ramy Youssef captured on “Ramy.” But it is more a collection of thematically connected short films than a traditional series. Eisenberg said it wasn’t easy to produce, requiring multiple locations – the Syrian and Jordanian scenes were shot in Montreal, other episodes were done in New Jersey – as well as lengthy casting calls. Any talk of signing up stars was quickly dismissed.
“I think sometimes people have that instinct,” says Bearman. “Let’s see if we can get Idris Elba. In this case, that’s never going to happen. We need a Nigerian guy who speaks Igbo. We need a woman of a certain age from Uganda. And Ai is a 55-year-old Chinese woman. The casting required the unknown.”
Even cast members who had screen experience have typically been stuck in secondary roles. Sleiman, for example, has played a terrorist in Amazon’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” Comedian Jonah Ray told Gordon about Uchenna Echeazu, who goes by the name Conphidance, an actor who played a small part in his series “Hidden America.” He was cast as Igwebuna Ikeji, who leaves his family in war-torn Nigeria to attend the University of Oklahoma.
“It was very important that everybody involved in the show had a connection to the source material,” says Gordon. “And also, Conphidance is clearly a star.”
Other standouts include Jearnest Corchado, portraying an undocumented, Mexican teenager who signs up for a squash program because it means getting free shoes to replace her duct-taped sneakers, and Eshan Inamdar, who plays a young boy whose parents are deported to India, leaving him to manage their motel for years.
For Yang, like Nanjiani, it was important that “Little America” be seen as more of a philosophical statement than a direct response to the current White House. Yang was born in California but his parents emigrated from Taiwan.
“We didn’t conceive of this show as a brick through anyone’s window,” says Yang. “The show is an observed portrait of eight people. The narrative of human experience is not as different as you might think.”
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“Little America” (eight episodes) begins streaming Friday on Apple TV Plus.