Often when we think about “prestige TV,” the idea is wrapped around onscreen violence, Twitter buzz or a sparkly, A-list cast. “Little America” doesn’t have any of those ― but it still has a type of cachet to which not many shows right now can attest.
The first season of the Apple TV+ anthology series premiered in January 2020, just before several prominent issues converged in the U.S.: the pandemic lockdown, the so-called cultural reckoning and new restrictions on immigrants coming to the country. That said, there was a lot of talk about humanity and how much it was disregarded in the supposed land of the free.
Created by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani and Lee Eisenberg (who also serves as the showrunner), “Little America” came at a time when bleak stories about immigrants dominated the news. So I was concerned that this series inspired by real-life stories of immigrants — some with names you might recognize, others largely unknown — would hinge upon narratives about racial trauma, hate crimes and other awful truths that impact their communities.
But instead, these are richly drawn, uniquely American origin stories about each character’s ambition, sense of self and determination after arriving here.
One episode from last season that comes to mind is about Iwegbuna Ikeji (Conphidance), a young man from Nigeria who finds a sense of connection through American cowboy culture. He dons a cowboy hat, boots with spurs and a big smile as he attends college.
This episode is particularly memorable because of how it upends stereotypes about both American western culture and Nigerian men. Some might expect the white guy who sells Iwegbuna the boots would say something racist or judge him for appreciating western culture. That never happens. In fact, he is friendly.
But while hate isn’t at the center of the narratives, “Little America” isn’t hagiographical. It details struggle and elements of perseverance that are humanly grounded, punctuated by characters contending with personal challenges that have far less to do with large, problematic systems in place.
And it’s about the connections its characters find, some of which surprise even them, that change the course of their lives. That’s often for the better, even when it doesn’t seem that way at first.
Season two, which dropped on the platform Friday, continues that same sentiment. A Somali man named Jibril (Hanad Abdi) is on the cusp of success with his camel meat business, a word-of-mouth hit in Minnesota that’s about to debut at a major food festival.
That is until a fire breaks out in his workstation and he and his team, mostly made up of friends and family, are forced to throw everything out.
“Little America” doesn’t spend a lot of time on characters’ failures or disappointments, of which there are plenty. It chooses instead to point to the essence of any great immigrant story: the unyielding desire to keep moving forward and succeed. It’s what makes it uniquely American.
This isn’t a flaw. It just feels like Eisenberg and his team are intent to give audiences a more diverse representation of immigrant lives that often fall under the radar. The attention to detail is as pristine as ever this season, with the theme songs of each episode changing per the culture prominent in each episode, and the directors culturally aligning with the subject.
While each story follows a similar format that establishes who its characters are, points to a source of conflict or yearning and ultimately reaches a friendly or gratifying conclusion, you’re never bored by the path each character takes to arrive there. Because it’s always different.
Like the story of Yoshiko (Shiori Ideta), a 42-year-old Japanese mother and wife who realizes years after coming to Ohio how much she misses playing baseball like she did in Japan. So she starts a female team, a decision that comes with both setbacks and rewards.
The question of what home means in a different place is part of what shapes “Little America” and gives the characters, as well as the audience, something to ponder during each episode.
That is immediately evident in the baseball episode when the protagonist sits at a table with her white husband (Michael Chernus) and their white friends and is overcome with a visceral urge to depart to the basement to watch one of Ichiro Suzuki’s games.
The same is felt with the story of Ciela (Victoria Canal), who emigrates from El Salvador to Bel-Air to live with her sister Mariana (Teresa Ruiz) in a mansion owned by a well-to-do, white elderly woman (June Squibb) who immediately notices Ciela’s amputated arm and pities her. To Ciela’s own account, the woman treats her “like a child” and disempowers her.
The woman’s repeated behavior contributes to a level of disillusionment that stifles Ciela, leading her to question her agency in this new space. What do you do when you leave a place of turmoil only to arrive someplace else where you become someone to be fixed instead of appreciated for who you are?
In the case of this episode, you claim a power that hasn’t already been granted to you. It’s the rare episode that doesn’t have a tangible achievement by the end, but rather a personal feat. Still, the impact remains the same.
Amid the rising popularity of immigrant stories on the small screen — “Pachinko,” “Mo” and “One Day at a Time” all come to mind — there is something so precious about a small but vital series that comes with little pretense. It’s what makes “Little America” such a warm, thoughtful and necessary show about home and identity.
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