'Extraordinary' new streaming TV series
Anthology series are really hard to get right.
More often than not, you'd get two great episodes, maybe one extraordinary one in a batch of eight or 10. The rest range from passable to skippable. And when it's easy to skip one over, that's the last thing you want.
But not Little America, the latest offering from Apple TV+. Here is an anthology series where the ratio is reversed (and that's being conservative), more like High Maintenance than Modern Love, Black Mirror or, shudder, The Romanoffs.
Based on a magazine series, the show is eight episodes, little short slice of life stories about the immigrant experience in America.
They include chapters about a young Indian boy whose parents run a motel in Utah, a Nigerian student trying to fit into the culture of his Oklahoma university by embracing a cowboy life or the Iranian man with a big heart and even bigger dreams.
Or the story of a French tourist who finds a common language at an absurd silent retreat.
What these vignettes have in common is tell the stories of people whose stories are generally ignored or sidelined in the mainstream pop culture of their adopted homes, featuring actors, writers and directors from culturally diverse backgrounds, not as the support but as the leads.
Actors like Shaun Toub, an Iranian-American actor who's been in the industry for decades playing roles like "Cabbie" or "Foreign Man", is given the space to play a character who's not just a calculated foreign enemy in Homeland.
Little America is from Pakistani-American comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife writer Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick), along with The Office writer Lee Eisenberg.
But they've collaborated with many different people, including Rajiv Joseph (Nurse Jackie), Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and Mfoniso Udofina (13 Reasons Why), bringing an authenticity to the endeavour.
Each episode is a perfect capsule, beautifully crafted and told, of someone's life, someone's story who deserves to be shined upon.
The only aspect that is a little tricky or challenging is Little America does perpetuate this unrealistic and unfair expectation around the hardworking or high-achieving immigrant - whether that's Marisol's cleaner mother or even Kabir excelling in Spelling Bees.
Little America are stories of immigrant success, perhaps by virtue of the fact that these are stories based on real people, so in order for the filmmakers to have heard about them, there must have been something exceptional about these real-life inspirations in the first place.
But it also furthers this idea that immigrants are only deemed "worthy" or "deserving" if they can demonstrate their value in their adopted home, that if they're not trying harder than everyone else, then they don't get to belong.
It's an earnt privilege, rather than one that is automatically bestowed on those who are arbitrarily born in countries like the US, Australia or the UK - and you look a certain way. Natural-borns get to be mediocre, lazy or even worse; immigrants don't.
It's a concept Little America doesn't grapple with enough in its rush to highlight the stories of the "right" kind of immigrants and how they weave into the American social fabric.
You can hardly blame the writers, producers and directors for wanting to create a feel-good series which sell the benefits of multiculturalism at a time of division and emboldened public racism, and it's not as though it completely glosses over all the hard parts.
In Little America, families are separated by continents, and the first-generation characters find their second-generation kids chafing against the old traditions.
"Iranians don't leave home until they're married," Faraz says to his son. Without missing a beat, the young man replies, "Iranian-Americans do".
Or the familiar and relatable scenario in which the second-generation young teens in the fifth episode, "The Grand Prize Expo Winner", are embarrassed by how ethnic their mother is in front of other people.
That episode was written and directed by Alan Yang, the filmmaker who won an Emmy for his writing on Netflix's Master of None, which he co-created with Aziz Ansari, and also created Amazon Prime's Forever.
It's an extraordinary episode of pathos laced with humour. It tells the story of Ai (Angela Lin), a divorced single mother of two who has never felt comfortable in America, reticent to mingle with strangers but tries so hard to provide for her kids.
When she finally wins a cruise trip for her family, the trip doesn't turn out to be the bonding experience she hoped it would be when her kids run off to hang out with people their own age. Ai's loneliness in this life she has created around her kids, doing almost nothing for herself, is heartbreaking.
It's a stunningly human piece of filmmaking, 30 minutes of compassionate storytelling made all the more emotional when you realise it's the story of Yang's mother, and he is the son in the story. You will weep.
Each episode is an emotional and sweeping story, even if they are also small and contained. It's a reminder that behind the race-baiting from too many politicians and media outlets looking to use fear for votes or profit are the people - individuals - with stories and experiences just like everyone else.
After three months and a dozen or so projects of varying quality, Apple TV+ can finally claim an unqualified creative success. Little America is an exceptional series.
Little America is streaming now on Apple TV+
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