By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Little America” is a collection of 30 episodes meant to demonstrate to audiences the “collective” that is the United States. Available on Apple TV, the series is billed as a “single character comedy anthology,” and offers eight fictionalized stories based on the real experiences of immigrants from various countries. The creators of the series insist that the stories offer proof of our similarities. That no matter where we come from, what our religion or the color of our skin, we all want and need the same things. After watching the series, I was more convinced that, while as humans we can all “relate” to each other, we are all quite different.
The format of the series is enjoyable. It does not require watching episodes in any order, and the entire series is already available. Each episode covers a different immigrant from a different country, such as Syria, China, or India. European countries are also featured. Every story comes with culturally-appropriate music, food, and “local color,” which is fun. It’s like getting a specially wrapped box of representative treats from each country and opening it up to find what you’re going to recognize, and not recognize, in each box. The technique is solid. The stories appeal visually and are cohesively put together. It’s commendable the way these bite-sized vignettes feel like entire movies. But, they aren’t comedies, and to me, they didn’t fulfill the objective.
“Little America,” which premiered in January, is a collaboration of multiple producers, teleplay writers, and directors. It was first a series of autobiographical articles in Epic Magazine—which is still available, and is also coming out as a book and audiobook. The series is being sold, it seems to me, on the coattails of Kumail Nanjani, who is still riding on the success of “The Big Sick” and his dopey comedy, “Stuber.” Nanjani came into the project only as it became a TV series, though, and while he is one of the executive producers, along with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, he is only one. Other big players in the creation of the series include Lee Eisenberg, producer of “The Office,” and Alan Yang, writer and producer for “Parks and Recreation.”
Nanjani says that it’s the fastest he’s said “yes” to any project. And the audience, which may or may not “look like” the people in the stories, will still be able to “feel like” those characters. That’s true. As I say, the stories are relatable. But they still have nothing to do with me.
There seems to be a tremendous amount of effort being made by the promoters of the show to say that “immigrants are just like everybody else!” Yet I would beg to differ. People that are not recent immigrants do not have to worry about being deported. Most white people do not have to worry about racism. The stories could easily stand on their own merit—they are well made and intriguing—and yet the push seems to be to get white people to watch the show — and I don’t blame them, as I’m not sure how long this series can survive. So you have to call it a comedy, which it’s not, and you have to appeal to a wide audience to make it last. However, the message that, “It’s okay, racist white people, these people are just like you (so please watch our show!),” is not really reflected in the series. On the contrary, the lives of the people portrayed were, to me, beyond anything I, as a white person, would ever have to experience. These were life and death level issues. People are fearful for their lives. Not just “spend time with my kids,” but “be in the same country as my kids.” Not just “bring home a working wage,” but “survive.”
I liked every episode I watched. Even though it’s not “comedy,” it has humorous touches, like the mom bringing Tupperware food to the cinema while the son looks longingly at the popcorn, but the pace is slow. I have a great deal of tolerance for meditative, serious stories, but a lot of people won’t. There is definitely an emotional payoff in every episode. When the Syrian refugee finally makes it to America, or the Indian boy is finally reunited with his parents, you will cry.
Maybe that should be the real message. Empathy. That’s what crosses the borders and makes connections. I have never been abandoned and had to run a motel as a pre-teen. My sexuality has never been illegal. But, no matter what, I can feel for you. I can sit with you and honor you. That’s what stories are really for. To help us remember that the person next to us might be going through extraordinary circumstances, and that he or she has earned a place at the table that is America, just like all the rest of us.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.