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How “Little America” Captures the Immigrant Experience One Story at a Time

Inspired by true stories, Apple TV+ anthology series uses stylized, dramatized vignettes to go beyond the headlines.

Inspired by the true stories featured in Epic Magazine, Little America goes beyond the headlines to bring to life the funny, romantic, heartfelt and surprising stories of immigrants in America. The fictionalized anthology series, which was renewed for a second season ahead of its debut, launched on Apple TV+ in November with eight half-hour episodes, each with its own unique story from different parts of the world.

“The Son” Adam Ali and Haaz Sleiman in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
“The Son”
Adam Ali and Haaz Sleiman in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Created by Lee Eisenberg (The Office) and Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani — the husband-wife duo behind The Big SickLittle America “strives to show the myriad ways and reasons why people come to the United States while also highlighting their individual personalities and humanity,” Caroline Framke notes in her review for Variety. “Even though every episode is written and directed by someone different, following characters with no specific awareness of one another, all of the installments contain a similar moment of self-aware reckoning,” she writes. “No matter which country they came from, the protagonists of Little America are staring down the fundamental questions of what it means to be American and what it takes to build a life from the ground up.”

Little America “tells immigrant stories with deep empathy,” writes Rolling Stone chief TV critic Alan Sepinwall, serving “as a powerful reminder of our country’s founding principles.” All of them profoundly touching, some of the episodes are sad, Sepinwall notes, while others are inherently sweet:

“Many of these stories span years, while some play out over only a few months, or even days. Yet within the space of each compact, 30-odd-minute installment, the filmmakers are able to efficiently capture the personalities of their main characters, specific cultural details, and family dynamics, as well as telling a clear and entertaining story about a particular moment in each person’s time in America.

Some are lighter (the silent retreat) or darker (homophobia in Syria) than others, but all manage to incorporate gentle comedy alongside weightier emotional or sociological concerns. Marisol’s squash career, for instance, turns into an underdog sports movie in miniature after a while, including a training montage whose accompanying song choice is delightfully perfect. Even the Syria episode has room for joy and hope, as our hero makes a best friend (Adam Ali) who has built his entire life around Kelly Clarkson songs.”

“The Grand Prize Expo Winners” X. Lee, Angela Lin, and Madeleine Chang in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
“The Grand Prize Expo Winners”
X. Lee, Angela Lin, and Madeleine Chang in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

The stories that inspired the series, in their original form, “are first-person accounts of the infinite, idiosyncratic paths of assimilation,” writes Alison Herman for The Ringer. “In the show, they’re transformed into stylized, dramatized vignettes: a rom-com set at a silent meditation retreat; a Horatio Alger story about a Ugandan woman selling cookies; a Chinese-American mother struggling to connect with her children on a cruise, based on episode writer-director Tze Chun’s own story.”

The filmmakers sought an authentic approach to their storytelling, from setting up the writers’ room through to casting. “We wanted to make sure that the appropriate people were in charge of telling the stories and directing the episodes. Obviously, the challenge is a lot of these people have not been given the opportunity to do this before. So that makes it harder to find those people,” Nanjiani recounts in an interview with Brandon Yu for the New York Times. “It’s just a matter of contacting as many people as you know,” he continues:

“Our agents and managers that were involved were basically like: ‘Hey, we have a story about a gay man from Syria. We really need writers who relate to that kind of experience. Do you know anybody like that?’ And we ended up having a lot of writers who it was their first job writing for TV. There are tremendously talented people from all parts of the world who haven’t gotten a chance to build a resume yet. They can be hard to find, but to use that as an excuse for why you don’t have different voices in a writers’ room is absurd.”

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

Aside from the fourth episode, “The Silence” — starring Mélanie Laurent and Zachary Quinto — each episode of Little America features a culturally-appropriate cast of relative unknowns. “Initially, when we were doing this show, we were like, we want people who are authentic to the part, if a character speaks a specific dialect, we want an actor who speaks that specific dialect. We didn’t want to diverge, phonetically,” Nanjiani explains in an interview with LaToya Ferguson for IndieWire. “And in the beginning, we were a little bit intimidated by that,” he admits, continuing:

“The truth is, there are a lot of diverse people out there who are very, very talented. People who, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the opportunity. We tweeted about casting calls and stuff. It was probably a little more involved in the process than casting usually is. But, what we learned is, these very, very talented people are out there. It’s slightly difficult to find them, but it’s not impossible.”

Yet, a diverse cast and crew may not be enough for Little America, at least not for everyone. Writing for The Verge, film and TV critic Joshua Rivera calls it the best show Apple TV+ has produced so far, but also the most misguided. “Just about every episode is an excellent half-hour of television,” he notes. “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, Rivera notes, is the framing:

“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.”

Little America is at its best during intimate moments that include scenes of the domestic lives of its subjects in their home countries, Hannah Giorgis writes for The Atlantic:

“In ‘The Manager,’ the first episode, a young boy named Kabir (played by Eshan Inamdar) becomes a spelling-bee champion in large part because of his father’s promise to buy him a Trans Am if he learned every word in the dictionary. This setup renders the family’s later separation especially heartrending. When Kabir’s parents return to India to await news of their U.S.-residency status, the process stretches on for years, meaning they never get to witness their son’s spelling-bee wins in person. By the time they return to the States, he’s an adult — one whose adolescence they observed through the obfuscatory filter of Skype. The small changes in Kabir’s parents are foreign to him; he’s surprised to learn that their old celebratory meal can no longer include Pepsi for his father, who has developed diabetes. These are lives and bonds and families on hold, and Little America conveys the weight of these losses without sacrificing its characters’ vitality.”

“The Manager” Ishan Gandhi in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
“The Manager”
Ishan Gandhi in “Little America,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Take a look inside the episode “The Manager” in the video featurette below:

There’s also plenty of room for levity in Little America, Giorgis observes, noting that some of the show’s formal choices emphasize intimacy and help telegraph lighter tones. “‘The Cowboy,’ the third episode, is especially delightful,” she writes:

“It follows a Nigerian immigrant named Iwegbuna (Conphidance), who grew up watching Westerns with his late father. When he immigrates to Oklahoma to study economics, Iwegbuna bridges the gap between himself and his family back home in part by listening to cassette tapes they send him, on which they recount everyday updates of their lives. Little America offers a clever and visually compelling sense of how much these dispatches mean to Iwegbuna by showing his family members materializing in the room with him whenever he hits play on a tape. The effect of the apparitions is less ghostlike and more comforting. This playful and experimental convention recurs throughout the episode, reminding viewers that Iwegbuna is never alone.”

Take a look inside the episode “The Cowboy” in the video featurette below:

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Want more on Little America? In the video below, “An Appreciation of Little America,” watch Paste Magazine TV editor Allison Keene and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson discuss they love the series, what makes it special, and why it’s the best thing Apple TV+ has done so far:

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