Apple TV+, which launched two months ago, has its first truly inspiring series in Little America, a lovely and emotive series about the lives of immigrants in America.
Little America, debuting Jan. 17 with all eight episodes, is a scripted anthology in which each standalone episode is based on a true story that was originally featured in Epic Magazine. Each episode (which mercifully are half-hours) not only has a new story and a new cast, but is also helmed by different writers and directors. It’s a clever choice: The immigrant experience isn’t universal, and the series reflects that truth by having each episode feel distinctly different — narratively and culturally, from the language to the music choices.
Immigration has always been a divisive, much-discussed topic but the conversations have only become louder — and more heated — in recent years. Naturally, television has reflected this with a noted increase in immigration-related series and storylines. For a while, these plots were generally relegated to the trope of the Green Card marriage (Will & Grace, Parks & Recreation, countless soap operas), but lately we’ve seen the subject approached with more urgency and nuance. Sitcoms like One Day at aTime and Superstore have featured smart (and humorous!) stories about undocumented immigrants, while new series Sunnyside and Party of Five hinge their entire premise on the topic. The end results vary (Sunnyside was kind of a mess; Superstore had an amazing finale last year), but just the existence is both notable and important.
This is especially true when it comes to Little America. Developed by Lee Eisenberg and marrieds Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick), Little America takes a different approach often with dazzling outcomes. Because of the format of the series, we’re introduced to many various people and stories. The series begins with “The Manager,” about a 12-year-old boy who ends up running his family’s hotel alone after his parents are deported to India. (He spends years trying to figure out how to help them return, even using a spelling bee contest to win a trip to the White House so he can plead his case directly.) “The Cowboy,” an oft-quirky and delightful episode, follows a Nigerian grad student who attends school in Oklahoma and immerses himself in the culture of cowboys. In “The Jaguar,” an undocumented teen becomes a killer competitive squash player; in “The Son,” which is easily the season’s best and most beautiful episode, a gay man flees Syria for his safety — and finds an ally in the world’s biggest Kelly Clarkson fan.
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Little America‘s anthology format is its biggest strength because if an episode falls flat (“The Silence,” which takes place during a silent meditation retreat, wasn’t my favorite), you can find something different and perhaps better in the next (“The Baker,” about a Ugandan woman starting her own cookie business, won me back). And by mostly eschewing the use of big-name actors (only a small handful of faces were familiar), writers, and directors, Little America promotes new, largely non-white talent both on-screen and behind the scenes. (Little America is already renewed for a second season, and I hope that trend continues).
Though the episodes clearly depict the hardships — from feeling lost and displaced to horrific acts of violence — Little America prefers not to dwell or drown in them. Surely, some may find this to be disingenuous and inauthentic, which is a valid criticism. Little America, despite how much the individual stories differ from each other, does tend to take a similar overall approach to each episode: They are sometimes predictable, rarely surprising, and generally brimming with positivity. Every episode is neatly packaged; like clockwork, I found myself tearing up around the same minute mark for half of them.
It can be argued that this isn’t providing the most honest look at immigrant life in America — which, to a degree, is certainly true — but conversely, it is succeeding at showing us a different side to the stories we’re so used to. It’s not pretending that these harsher realities don’t exist, nor is it implying that coming to America is a solution. Little America is trying to provide a truthful but optimistic look at the immigrant experience, and it mostly succeeds.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Little America is funny, poignant and heartwarming — making it stand out from the rest of Apple TV+’s early offerings.