For an enterprise so richly resourced, it’s remarkable just how middling Apple’s television offerings have been thus far. Since the premium service’s launch in November, its lineup has been almost impressively haphazard: There’s the discordant horror of M. Night Shyamalan’s (much-contested) Servant; the disappointing tonal incoherence of the network’s flagship series, The Morning Show; the virus-afflicted, post-apocalyptic landscape of See; and the glossy time warp of Dickinson.
Thankfully, AppleTV+’s newest show, Little America, is almost nothing like the streaming behemoth’s prior offerings. The eight-episode anthology series draws inspiration from more immediate sources: the real-life stories of immigrants in America, first presented in Epic magazine’s compilation of the same name (one episode is based on the family experience of one of the show’s writers, Tze Chun). Each slightly fictionalized episode zooms in on one person, warmly depicting a slice of his or her life. Taken together, the installments offer a non-exhaustive mosaic of immigrant experiences. Little America’s guiding principle is its not-so-subtle affirmation of its characters’ humanity, an artistic intention that’s noble given the current political (and entertainment) climate but sometimes too lofty for its own good.
This series is hardly the first work to explore the pains and triumphs that come with moving to and adapting to the United States. But the anthology format serves the show’s goals in crucial ways. Most obviously, Little America’s depictions of eight different families grappling with relocation free individual episodes from the burden of representation. The framing of the show necessarily rejects the idea that each story can be a stand-in for the Immigrant Narrative writ large, or that there is a single narrative to begin with. Unlike migration-focused works that have prioritized their own putative importance over fidelity to the people they represent, Little America doesn’t sensationalize violence. The creators, Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani, and Emily V. Gordon, didn’t set out to capture the most politically urgent tales, either. “The stories are very personal, and the stakes are hopefully universal. ‘I want to provide a better home for my family’; ‘I want to fit in at a new school,’” Eisenberg told The Ringer recently. “Those kinds of themes and storylines are what we were chasing, and the fact that they were with people that are so rarely front and center was something that really excited us.”
Indeed, Little America is at its best when depicting intimate moments, including scenes of its subjects’ domestic life—especially in their home countries. 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.
Kabir’s parents aren’t the only subjects who struggle with the arcane American immigration system. In the final and most wrenching episode, “The Son,” a gay Syrian man flees home after his sexuality is discovered by people outside his immediate family. Upon his arrival in Jordan, Rafiq (Haaz Sleiman) becomes a regular at an internet cafe, where he constantly refreshes the webpage tracking his application for asylum in the United States. His anxiety is palpable. Though the series avoids story lines about more harrowing migration paths, Little America underscores the fear that seemingly minor—and arbitrary—administrative updates can inspire in immigrants. The punishing nature of the American immigration system directly affected the show’s production: Because of the ban that restricts travel from Syria, the final episode of Little America was filmed in Montreal. (According to show writers, the episode has been banned in 11 countries; Apple has yet to comment publicly on “The Son” being unavailable for streaming in those areas.)
Little America still finds plenty of room for levity, and some of the show’s formal choices help with telegraphing lighter tones and emphasizing intimacy. “The Cowboy,” the third episode, is especially delightful. 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.
The videocassette device of “The Cowboy” is its most stylistically distinct feature, but the rest of Little America’s episodes display their own creative sensibilities too. As a result, the show is perhaps best enjoyed over multiple sittings rather than bingeing it. The Epic-inspired series manages to make each installment feel original in part by working with a variety of writers and directors and by highlighting the personalities of its real-life subjects (who are shown at the end of their respective episodes along with an update on their lives). Though each story doesn’t seem laden with a mission statement, the effect of multiple tales featuring conspicuously hardworking immigrants, many of them entrepreneurs, can be a touch cloying. It makes me wonder whether the series might have benefited from weekly releases that would have given each episode some room to breathe, or how the series might have been able to engage with more transgressive topics.
Still, the show undeniably stands out as Apple’s most inspired offering thus far. The company has already ordered another season, and a collection of the original stories will be published in book form this spring. Little America could very well go on to become a critical anchor for the platform, even without the obvious allure of A-list stars. Its ambitions aren’t flashy, but Little America leads with a clear investment in the kinds of people often relegated to the background of other shows. It’s a smart, empathetic choice—one that benefits both Apple and viewers.