In this fraught, xenophobic and racist time, in great part egged on by our current President, the series “Little America” (Apple TV+, 2020) is vital to counter the anti-immigrant narrative espoused by certain sections of our country. These heartfelt stories about immigrants from all over the world to the U.S. are inspired by real individuals and their experiences.
What is “Little America” about?
This anthology series from Academy Award nominees Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) and Emily V. Gordon humanizes immigrants by giving us glimpses into their lives and circumstances. Executive produced by Emmy-nominated producer Lee Eisenberg (“The Office,” “Good Boys”) and Emmy Award-winning producer Alan Yang (“Master of None,” “Parks and Recreation”), “Little America” is a scripted show chronicling funny, romantic, and heartwarming accounts of immigrants who come to the United States from Singapore, India, Uganda, Mexico, Syria, Iran, and Nigeria.
Adapted from true stories of real people first featured in Epic Magazine, the writers tread a delicate balance between fact and fiction. “What is the story that’s worth telling? What is the part of the story worth leaving out? What is it that we’re trying to achieve with the story?” explained Rajiv Joseph, one of the show’s writers. “That collaborative process is what led to not only my episode, but all the episodes. That’s why the show is going to be a really successful and beautiful television program.”
Episode 1: The Manager
The show opens with “The Manager,” an unexpectedly funny adaptation of Kunal Sah’s devastating story of running a Utah motel on his own at 12 years old when his parents are deported back to India. Although some details were omitted and changed, director Deepa Mehta and writer Rajiv Joseph produced a strong story that effectively conveyed the loneliness, longing, and absurdity of a child running a motel by himself.
“We went back and did rewrites because with any story you’re adapting, it has to be a compression of time,” Joseph divulged to Mochi magazine. “What’s the cleanest and most efficient way of telling a gripping story in only 30 minutes?”
Gripping is absolutely right. No wonder “Little America” begins the series with this episode.
As we are first introduced to Kabir, he is memorizing every word in an English dictionary so he can earn a car from his father. After his parents are deported and he is left with an irresponsible family friend, Kabir continues his obsession with memorizing words and is convinced by a teacher to enter the National Spelling Bee. The juxtaposition of Kabir during the spelling bee with memories of his family literally illustrating the word meanings is superb.
Kabir’s fury and bewilderment are excellently acted by Ishan Gandhi (child), and his later fear and loneliness are well portrayed by Suraj Sharma (adult). Sunkrish Bala is an absolute delight as Vijay, the adult ostensibly in charge of the far more responsible Kabir, stealing the show with his jaded one-liners.
Episode 6: The Grand Prize Expo Winners
This episode follows Ai, a Singaporean single mother who wins an all-inclusive Alaskan cruise, allowing her and her two children to experience a taste of the good life on an emotionally cathartic trip. Though Ai envisioned the cruise as a week full of quality time with her children, she is instead forced to spend time alone as her kids leave her to explore the cruise with newfound friends, asserting their independence. We experience Ai’s disappointment, though we also empathize with her children’s desire for more breathing room.
Written and directed by Tze Chun, this episode is actually an adaptation of his mother’s story, greatly condensed. “One of the hardest parts of telling the story was trying to boil down my mom’s life to just these small moments in this time period,” explained Chun to Mochi magazine. “She has had such an interesting life.”
Most intriguing is how Ai repeatedly declares that she was lucky despite evidence pointing to the contrary. Whether it was right before winning the cruise after years of losing, or on the trip itself as she considers gambling with the free chip they give as an incentive to continue gambling, Ai clings to this belief in her luck. Through carefully interspersed flashbacks, we see glimpses of Ai’s childhood and life—all of them heartbreaking and not what anyone would consider lucky.
When asked about the concept of luck, Chun elaborated, “The idea of luck comes up for me a lot when thinking about my mom’s life. She was born into a very poor family in Singapore and was sold at birth.” Eventually bought by a brothel, she was around 11 when Chun’s adoptive grandmother came in and, on impulse, took her. “My grandmother had an argument with the madam and [in an] angry moment, just grabbed my mom’s hand and they walked out of there together.”
Chun’s episode works so well because it isn’t an epic story despite the grand, sweeping nature of his mother’s life. It isn’t just an immigrant story either; it’s a story about a single mother coming to terms with her children changing—as well as her own childhood and lost dreams.
If you love stories big and small, “Little America” is a great way to expand your palette, one person at a time.
“Little America” is on Apple TV+ and has been renewed for a second season. You can find the entire series here. I screened and reviewed “Season 1, Episode 1: The Manager” and “Season 1, Episode 6: The Grand Prize Expo Winners.” You can follow writer/director Tze Chun on Instagram at @thetzechun and Twitter at @thetzechun.