‘Little America’ Review: Deeply Human Stories Shine in Apple Anthology Series

     January 17, 2020

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America is complicated. At best, at worst, at both simultaneously. It’s a country of pain, discrimination, hatred. But also of triumph, acceptance, love. All swirling around at once. Little America, by many minor miracles of half-hour television storytelling, manages to encapsulate all of these complexities and more. It’s a series of simple, human stories that will move you in many ways, all while writing a devastatingly vulnerable love letter to America, warts and all. The series premieres on Apple TV+ January 17th, and it is absolutely worth your time.

Based on a collection of pieces originally published in Epic Magazine, Little America is an anthology series. The first season is comprised of eight half-hour episodes, each telling a self-contained story of one American immigrant, all based on true stories (Episode 6, “The Grand Prize Expo Winners,” is even written and directed by the real-life son of the woman at the center). It was developed for Apple by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and Lee Eisenberg, veterans of character-driven comedies like The Big Sick and The Office. Producing the series alongside these three include comedy vets Alan Yang (Master of None) and Moshe Kasher (Problematic with Moshe Kasher). The series’ voice feels like an extension of all these established voices, to its benefit. But more welcomely, it promises a series of new voices. Every episode boasts different writers, directors, actors, and DPs — all of whom produce peerless work, all of whom bring a sense of authenticity to the culture being explored, all of whom I need to see work more and more in 2020 and beyond.

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Image via Apple TV+

The stories all, by design of the series, vary in subject. But one common thread unites them: Their startling efficiency of character depth. Sometimes, other episodic anthology series like Black Mirror can feel overly plot-focused, with episodes designed just to explore a topic or narrative experiment, and characters designated merely to further that experiment along. Not so with Little America. Each half-hour episode develops their characters with masterful speed, insight, and pathos. Even episodes predicated on storytelling devices, like the near entirely-silent “The Silence,” take the time to shade their characters with atypical nuance (Mélanie Laurent is stunning in this episode, moving from infectious comedy to shaking fear by journey’s end). Thus, every half-hour episode, in another timeline, feels less like a “half-hour episode of a TV comedy” and more like “a mini feature film.” “The Jaguar,” in particular, would one million percent be a smash Sundance sensation if developed into a feature. It’s an underdog sports story with a fierce, star-making lead performance (Jearnest Corchado), a delightfully eccentric supporting performance (John Ortiz as an unpredictable coach), a warmly non-confrontational political subtext (Corchado and her family are undocumented immigrants), and exhilarating action (who knew squash could be so cinematic?).

The series is chock-full of instantly iconic, resonating moments, stories, and filmmaking craft. “The Cowboy” has a contagiously endearing central performance from Conphidance, and visual panache in every frame and choice from director Bharat Nalluri and DP Paula Huidobro. “The Manager” charts the journey of one character over several actors, his path only gaining emotional steam as his performers change. Every single episode has an ending that will make you simultaneously cry and pump your fist. And final episode “The Son” will absolutely punch you in the gut before lifting your heart’s spirits. The series finds the universality in these specific experiences, showcasing the primal need to survive butting up against the truly American desire to thrive — to, as Hasan Minhaj once put it, “live.” These characters feel indebted to their families, to the cultures that birthed them, to the responsibilities and sacrifices that provided their new opportunities. But they also dream of more. And wouldn’t you know it, they can do both, one seamlessly leading into the other and back again. No matter where you were born, you will find these journeys relatable deep in your bones.

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Image via Apple TV+

Does any episode of the show stumble? The closest might be “The Rock,” written by the developing team of Nanjiani, Gordon, and Eisenberg. It tells the story of an Iranian immigrant (Shaun Toub) desperate to find his family a new, better home in New York. One problem — the tract of land he has his sights on is currently home to a big ol’ rock. So, he chips it away, one pickaxe, bulldozer, even contained explosion at a time, believing sincerely that his hard work will eventually pay off. The metaphor is lovely, summing up the show’s thesis succinctly (and providing one helluva crane shot from director Nima Nourizadeh and DP David Franco). And the episode is full of moments that, at an almost objective level, stun with emotional effectiveness — Toub gets to deliver many mini-monologues touching on subjects like American microaggressions and unending paternal love. But these moments are unfortunately jutted together without the sense of progression and depth afforded to the other episodes’ characters. The teleplay and editing feels jagged, at times even unmotivated, perhaps borrowing the metaphor of the episode a bit too literally. Ultimately, these are relatively small gripes given the rest of the season’s mastery. And, it is heartwarming to see just how loving a father Toub is — his joyful speech about his son’s weirdo art-rock band really got me.

In a time when American discourse feels overwhelmingly apocalyptic, filled with anger and rigid hate, it’s beyond refreshing to experience perspectives of progression. Little America reminds us all of the inherent promise and potential lying within America. It tells the kinds of stories that can change hearts and minds.

Rating: ★★★★★

Little America is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+

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Image via Apple TV+

Television