Funny, inspiring ‘Little America’ tells immigrant stories that are pleasing without preaching
Kumail Nanjiani is one of the producers of the Apple TV+ vignettes profiling likable people pursuing the Great American Dream.
Welcome to the first truly great series from Apple TV+.
“Little America” (already renewed for a second season) is a collection of stand-alone episodes, each inspired by true stories from Epic Magazine about immigrants pursuing the Great American Dream in one form or another.
Although each finely crafted, beautifully filmed, well-photographed vignette naturally touches on hot-button social circumstances and issues, “Little America” is hardly some overwrought piece of propaganda advocating extreme takes on either side of the political spectrum. It’s far too nuanced and complex and sophisticated for that.
Begins streaming Friday on Apple TV+
It’s also funny as hell at times, and filled with memorable portraits of real, three-dimensional, flawed but in most cases relatable and eminently likable fellow human travelers on this planet.
Developed for TV by Lee Eisenberg and the wife-and-husband duo of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (“The Big Sick”), “Little America” kicks off with an episode titled “The Manager.”
The year is 2003. A precocious, 12-year-old boy named Kabir (Eshan Inamdar) is living a happy, uncomplicated life with his Indian immigrant parents, who run an economy motel in Green River, Utah, as they seek political asylum.
Every time Kabir asks his father the meaning of word he doesn’t understand, dad says to look it up in the dictionary. Within a year, Kabir is a state spelling champion, on his way to Washington, D.C., for the national finals.
But by that point, Kabir’s parents have been sent home to India, and their case has been buried in a mountain of red tape.
As a perk for making nationals, the spelling bee finalists get a White House tour and a visit with First Lady Laura Bush (Sherilyn Fenn, a long way from “Twin Peaks”) — and Kabir intends to seize that moment to make a personal plea with the first lady to do something about his parents’ plight, and I’ll say no more about what happens after that.
Another standout episode, “The Jaguar,” is highlighted by a powerful and lovely performance by Jearnest Corchado as Marisol, a whip-smart but hard-edged and troublesome teenage daughter of an undocumented Mexican housekeeper.
As Marisol rides the bus to school (self-consciously tucking her duct-taped sneakers under her seat to avoid ridicule), she listens to “Mandolin Rain” by Bruce Hornsby on her iPod. Wait, what? Her friend pops in one of the earpieces for a moment, makes a face and says, “Ugh. I don’t care if [the iPod] is from Goodwill. You need to wipe this s--- and get some new music.”
Ah, but Marisol finds herself kinda liking the Lite Rock playlist. (Later in the episode, “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross makes an appearance on the soundtrack.)
The bus scene is a small, almost throwaway moment — but it’s also an unexpected and funny little pop culture touch, and one of the many, many times in which American pop music is featured to great effect in this series.
Marisol signs up for a squash league at a posh athletic facility in order to score a new pair of athletic shoes — but she can’t take the shoes home, so she winds up coming back and taking up the game. In a “Karate Kid”-esque plot development that would seem utterly contrived were it not for the fact it adheres closely to the real-life story, it turns out Marisol has an inherent talent for squash.
As is the case with every episode, “The Jaguar” has an epilogue with images of the true-life people who inspired the story, and updates on their lives. The continuation of Marisol’s journey is so uplifting and triumphant, there’s enough material to fit the classic sports-movie formula. It’s the “Rocky” of squash!
One of the most emotionally wrenching chapters in the series is “The Son,” with Haaz Sleiman as Rafiq, a Syrian man whose father literally scars him (via a horrific burn) and disowns him when he learns Rafiq is gay. Living in constant fear of being ostracized or beaten or worse in his homeland, Rafiq makes his way to America in the hopes he can be his true self and live his best life in a far more accepting environment — leading to a scene that makes perfect use of Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” and I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying.
I also loved “The Grand Prize Expo Winners,” with Dusty Springfield’s “Goin’ Back” serving as the musical narrative for a stunningly good montage setting up the story about a single Vietnamese mother (Angela Lin) whose two children become increasingly Americanized with each passing year and have long stopped caring about their mother’s annual dream of winning a drawing for a family getaway trip — and of course that’s when mom’s name is finally picked, and off they go on an Alaskan cruise.
(Another Dusty Springfield mid-1960s tune, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” gets prominent play later in this episode.)
In the dryly funny and largely dialogue-free “The Silence,” a decided departure from the overall tone of the series, the wonderful Melanie Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds”) is the restless and lost Sylviane, who departs France for a soul-searching, solo journey to the promised land of America, and winds up at a silent retreat led by Zachary Quinto’s ridiculous, Jesus-looking yogi.
When Sylviane finally does speak (in French), she delivers a hilarious and touching and heartfelt monologue in which she recaps her trip and explains why she came to America.
“The Silence” is bookended by “Lonely People” and “Ventura Highway,” two pop hits by the group …