'Little America' Depicts The Immigrant Experience Not Seen In Headlines
“Little America” is the new Apple TV + series that documents the complexity of the immigrant experience. Kumail Nanjiani and Joshuah Bearman join us to discuss the stories not seen in the daily headlines.
Kumail Nanjiani, executive producer of “Little America.” Co-wrote and starred in the 2017 Oscar-nominated film “The Big Sick.” (@kumailn)
Joshuah Bearman, executive producer of “Little America.” Co-founder of Epic Magazine, the source material for the original stories in “Little America.” (@joshbearman)
On how the immigrant experience is normally depicted in film and TV
Kumail Nanjiani: “I feel like no matter what side of the immigrant debate you’re on, right, if you hear the word immigrant — because of the way that they’re depicted in American pop culture — the image that people get in their head is pretty similar. And … a lot of it seems to be defined by struggle and strife. Not saying that those stories aren’t valid, and we have seen those stories. We just wanted to tell sort of a different point of view. You know, these people are just normal people living their lives. And in some ways, they’re just — you know, not in some ways, in many, many ways — very, very similar to just people who are born in America trying to live their lives. So we wanted to sort of explore a different version of the immigrant than the one that you generally see depicted in American pop culture.”
On feeling accepted in America
Kumail Nanjiani: “I never really felt fully accepted in America in that way. I think, of late, the definition of American for a lot of people has gotten really, really narrow. And I certainly do not fit that definition or description. So yeah, I think a lot of people do not see me as American. It’s because of how I look, because of how I sound, because of where I’m from, because of what I believe. And so you’re sort of forced to make your own identity. And it’s something that I’m still working on. I do not have this figured out. You know, finding parts of where I’m from, and parts of where I am and figuring out which of those I can use to sort of forge an identity. You know, my wife a little while ago asked me, she was like, ‘Do you feel American?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And she was like, ‘So then what are you?’ And the only group I truly felt like I belonged in was comedian. So that was the only response I had. And I think that’s still true. That’s the only group where I really can be like, ‘Alright. I know for sure I’m a comedian. Nothing else I know.’”
On not making the series political
Kumail Nanjiani: “If you’re telling stories of immigrants, and you’re making them political, then you’re really taking the focus away from the people, away from their stories. We didn’t want these people to be defined by their relationship to America. Because then that becomes about America more than it becomes about these people. And again, those stories are very valid. But we have heard a lot of those stories, you know? We really want to just sort of tell stories of immigrants that — I don’t want to use the phrase humanize. I really kind of hate it … because I don’t think humans should need to be humanized. However, I felt that if we did tell these stories — the types of stories where immigrants are not defined by their relationship to the immigration system, or by their relationship to the American political system — then I think we would sort of expand, hopefully, people’s view of what an immigrant is. Ideally the goal is, when someone hears the word immigrant, they don’t get an image in their head. Because it’s such a varied group of people and experiences that there’s really no way to narrow it down to one image.”
On how the show was created
Joshuah Bearman: “Every so often a writer or producer will come to me — or us, with my company, now, that sort of works on this type of thing — with an idea that they think might be really enlivened by a true story. And that’s what happened here. Lee Eisenberg, who’s a pretty well-known writer and showrunner and also somebody that both Kumail and I know, he just called. And his dad’s an immigrant. And so he said — it was also, this was right around the election. And I feel like the reality was sort of setting in, it was right around the inauguration, actually.
“And he called me and said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about doing a show about immigrants. And I feel like it would be great to figure out a way if there [are] some true stories to help shape that idea.’ So I said, ‘Sure, let’s think about trying to collect a lot of stories and see what that tells us, what kind of stories we can tell, what kind of show we could potentially make.’ And then very quickly, we talked to Kumail and Emily and also Alan Yang, another writer and director [co-creator of ‘Master of None’]. … Some of the episodes of ‘Master of None’ were sort of inspiration, also, for this type of show.
“… There is an episode in the first season that’s about the parents. And sort of the relationship of immigrants, and their parents and their differing relationships to, you know, being in the country. And there’s an episode in season two called ‘New York, I Love You’ that’s sort of like a series of small vignettes that are just kind of incidental stories of people that are usually maybe in the background of another episode, and it chooses to follow them. And that’s kind of the idea that we had here. These are stories about people who normally would be, you know, somebody that you would see in passing in an episode of TV. And this is actually gonna be their story.
“So we’re kind of thinking about all that. And obviously even ‘The Big Sick’ similarly is a rom-com. But one of the protagonists happens to be an immigrant. And that’s, you know, sort of, at some conceptual level, very similar. Because we just wanted to tell stories that were about people’s lives, but they happen to be immigrants. And so we kind of all started talking. And then the stories were coming in. And we started looking at these stories we did.
“We had like 150 leads probably when we started. I have a bunch of researchers on staff. And, also, you know, friends in journalism publishing. So we had freelancers working. We canvased far and wide and brought all these stories together. And then we started looking at them as a group, and it was sort of very clear right away. The stories were so interesting, compelling and all different kinds. And it was just very clear that there was a great show here. And sort of the format of the show almost emerges out of the stories.”
From The Reading List
Vulture: “We’re Lucky to Have Little America” — “Episodic anthology shows are a real mixed bag. For a while, I’ve held a firm “anti” position, thanks to the treacly, smug patness of Modern Love, the diminishing returns of Black Mirror, the underwhelming Twilight Zone remake, and the overrestrictive conceit of Room 104, which makes even its great episodes seem like they’re filling in a worksheet. There are a few shows that really test my distaste, though. There’s Documentary Now, which is more than welcome to keep doing whatever its weird heart desires. There’s High Maintenance, which makes surprise feel welcome rather than obnoxious.
“And now there’s Little America, a show which I was not prepared to love and then absolutely did. The Apple TV+ streaming series presents a new kind of publicity challenge for the outlet, whose previous releases all had big, buzzy draws of some sort. The Morning Show is almost unsustainably large in terms of both its star power and its budget. Dickinson, a much smaller and less obvious title to hang a launch on, nevertheless had the benefit of being extremely weird and beloved in niche corners.
“Shows like See and Servant have an explicit genre appeal. But Little America is like its name: a very small show with reasonably well-known producers (Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon) but few big-name actors or directors attached to it. There are eight half-hour episodes. Their scope is modest. The stories, which are sometimes delightful and sometimes tragic, are about relatively everyday lives. The show is beautiful.”
The Atlantic: “Finally, Apple Has Made a Great TV Show With Little America” — “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.”
The Daily Beast: “Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on Why Hollywood Was ‘Scared’ of ‘Little America’s’ Immigrant Stories” — “There is a pivotal moment in the Apple TV+ anthology series Little America that so many of us can relate to—a character is weeping to a Kelly Clarkson song.
“The circumstances in this case are incredibly specific. A gay man from Syria named Rafiq (Haaz Sleiman) is fleeing violent persecution from his family, seeking asylum in the United States at the encouragement of a Kelly Clarkson-loving confidante. After a torturous amount of time spent waiting in hiding, his asylum is finally granted.
“When he arrives, his friend takes him to a place he never thought he’d see in his lifetime—a gay club—to experience something he never thought he’d feel: safe and accepted. A drag queen on stage is lip-synching to Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway.’ Rafiq is overcome. He bursts into tears.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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