The arrival of a show like “Little America” is no accident. Each chapter of Apple TV Plus’ new anthology series centers on the journeys of immigrants and first-generation Americans who end up in the United States either by choice, necessity or some combination thereof. (All are fictionalized versions of real-life stories, as recently collected by Epic Magazine.) It also comes at a time when Hollywood is (at the very least) making overtures toward becoming more inclusive in its storytelling and on-screen representation, and as the country’s increasingly dire political situation keeps the very nature of immigration in jeopardy.
“Little America,” which Apple renewed for a second season weeks before the first was set to premiere, strives to show the myriad ways and reasons why people come to the United States while also highlighting their individual personalities and humanity. 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. 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.
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Created by Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the series devotes eight half-hours to varying immigrant narratives spanning decades. (It’s a familiar premise for Gordon and Nanjiani, co-writers of the Oscar-nominated comedy “The Big Sick,” and “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang, who is executive producer here.) On one hand, it sometimes feels disjointed going from one tale to the next, which makes sense given that the show passes the creative baton every half-hour. On the other, letting another writer or director tackle the material means that even if one episode stumbles, the next is, quite literally, another story entirely.
With just a couple exceptions — including a disappointing episode written by Eisenberg, Gordon and Nanjiani about an Iranian man (Shaun Toub) trying to build a house — each installment is written by someone with firsthand experience of its central culture clash. One particularly good chapter — “The Grand Expo Winners,” a bruising portrait of a single Vietnamese mother (Angela Lin) trying to keep her broken heart in one piece as her extremely American kids drift away — is written and directed by Tze Chun, the son of the woman whose life inspired the story, whose teenage self plays a crucial role in the narrative.
Other highlights include “The Manager,” written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Deepa Mehta, which portrays the quietly devastating childhood of a boy whose parents become a casualty of the labyrinthine immigration system and wind up stuck in India for years, leaving him to run the family motel in Utah by himself. “The Son” follows a closeted and terrified gay Syrian (Haaz Sleiman) who finds a kindred spirit in a flamboyant Kelly Clarkson fan (Adam Ali), who in turn encourages him to apply for asylum in the United States, where they can more openly be themselves. As with all the best moments of “Little America,” these episodes feature attentive directing and wrenching performances from actors who, as they ably prove here, deserve far higher profiles — or at least more layered starring roles than they have heretofore been offered.
(The only episode that has more widely known actors is “The Silence,” starring Mélanie Laurent as a restless woman on a silent retreat headed up by an intense yogi played by Zachary Quinto; as written and directed by co-showrunner Sian Heder, it’s a deeply wry shock to the system in a “Fleabag” vein that is the least like any other contribution to the series by a long shot.)
For all the hardship and heartbreak it depicts, however, “Little America” is fundamentally optimistic. Each segment takes pains to close on a relatively hopeful note, or even an outright triumphant one as characters find resilience, nurture their most tender relationships and beat the odds to overcome formidable obstacles like poverty and an immigration status hanging precariously in the balance. Several stories conclude with their subjects adjusting — or perhaps more accurately, assimilating — to American life after loosening their grip on the cultural differences that made it harder for them to adapt in the first place. Such attempts to hold on to one’s roots in a country that rarely permits the room to do so represent the frustrating dichotomy that any immigrant or first-generation American can recognize. Whether or not the writers of “Little America” realized it as they formed their individual stories, they wrote an anthology that speaks not only to the breadth of immigrant experience, but to the bittersweet thread of loss that unites them all.