The conceit behind the new Apple TV Plus series Little America is admirable: The creators are out to adapt the true stories of American immigrants for TV. As the need for diversity in media continues to be a hot-button topic — in front of and behind the camera, as well as in awards voting bodies — Little America seems like an easy victory for Apple, in terms of producing relevant content and telling stories that haven’t been afforded space before. Executive-produced by spouses and The Big Sick co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and Master of None’s Alan Yang, among others, the series tells eight different stories about people from a variety of cultures in eight separate parts of America. And yet, for all that breadth of personal experience, it feels strangely homogeneous.
It’s not that the stories (fictionalized dramatizations of true events) share details. They’re strikingly different, ranging from a story about a young Indian boy who deals with his parents’ deportation to one about a French woman navigating a silent meditation retreat. The connective tissue between episodes is the overwhelming blandness they share. The problem comes directly from the show’s intentions: Nanjiani has said the creative team “didn’t want to present a political show with a specific agenda.” Though he acknowledged that any story about immigrants would be inherently political, he said he believes that making an immigrant’s story overtly about those themes would “[take] the focus away from the person’s story and [put] it on the political system in America. And we didn’t want that.”
As a result, Little America is muddled, with its baked-in politics directly in opposition to its “positive” message. It’s akin to The Morning Show, Apple TV Plus’ flagship series, which is written to appeal to as many people as possible by lacking a clear stance on the politics therein — the show panders to conservatives and liberals equally, and even the Matt Lauer stand-in is cast as redeemable. It’s frustrating in The Morning Show; it’s disappointing in Little America. “Immigrants, they’re just like us!” is a fine message in theory, but in practice, especially now, as immigrants are treated like animals by the American government, it’s simplistic and reductive.
Writing for The Verge, journalist Joshua Rivera criticizes Rian Johnson’s Knives Out for using “a trope that’s ultimately damaging to the people its satire aims to bolster up: the notion of ‘the good immigrant,’ which maintains that immigrants and people of color deserve to be treated humanely because they’ve earned their humanity, not because they’re human.” There’s a similar undercurrent to Little America, in spite of the series’ good intentions. Almost all of its stories follow a rags-to-riches formula of hard work, and to some degree, conformity, being the path to triumph in America.
This is a modern version of the American dream: Work hard enough, and America can be yours, too. But strangely, Little America seems to have been conceived for viewers who are already considered “American,” i.e., white audiences. To name-drop the rich family in Knives Out, this is a show for the Thrombeys of the world — the kinds of people who consider themselves liberal, but see the right to exist unharassed in America as something that has to be earned, and think of other cultures’ traditions as “charmingly ethnic.” One of the most mystifying episodes, “The Baker,” sees a Ugandan woman in St. Louis struggling to sell her cookies — until she starts carrying them in a basket on her head, at which point locals start finding her “fun” and start buying from her. (She calls it “African magic.”) The episode frames this as a triumphant moment, rather than indicative of problems with how foreign cultures can be commodified.
Three of the series’ eight episodes manage to tell deeper stories, two because they do get into more explicit politics, and one because it messes around with the storytelling format. “The Grand Prize Expo Winners” and “The Son” explicitly reference the political systems of China (a woman in America struggles to connect with her two children while reliving memories of being sold by her parents to a childless couple under China’s one-child policy) and Syria (a man flees his family and applies for asylum in the U.S. after his father discovers that he is gay). The stories don’t suffer because they critique countries’ politics and how they affect people. Instead, they actually make for more nuanced characters by grounding their journeys against a background more specific than “work hard and you can overcome other people’s prejudices.”
“The Silence,” meanwhile, is fascinating as the only episode to play around with format: It examines a meditation retreat where attendees aren’t allowed to speak, which makes for a largely silent story. It’s also the one episode focusing on a white immigrant, a woman who’s come to the retreat to work on herself. “Many people have an idea of what an immigrant looks like, but the truth is, there is a greater diversity than for which stereotypes allow,” says Sian Heder, the episode’s director.
But it’s telling that the episode about the white immigrant is the one that has the most room to be stylistically playful, as the woman (played by Mélanie Laurent) falls into daydreams about her fellow retreat members. And unlike the other episodes, which center on overcoming hardship, there’s no similar through-line of working for acceptance. There’s literal work, in that the members of the retreat all have chores to do, but that has nothing to do with the other members of the retreat coming to accept the central character. Her struggle is simply that silence doesn’t suit her, not that America fundamentally rejects her. The eventual reveal that she only speaks French has no real impact on her relationships with her fellow meditatees.
By making “The Silence” so light in comparison to the other episodes, Little America plays into the same idea it’s trying to dispel. Anyone can be an immigrant, but the ones who are white or pass for white don’t need to prove that they’re worth empathy. It feels unintentional when “The Silence” ends up creatively reinforcing that point; the episode comes across as a play to appease anyone who’d protest that white people have just as hard a time getting by in America. It feels oblivious of optics in the same way that the series ignores how it looks when a black character can only sell her goods by inventing a more “exotic” image to please white customers.
Despite having a healthy slate of new shows, Apple TV Plus remains a platform without a strong identity. As it attempts to appeal to all viewers, it’s falling behind its competitors, and shows like The Morning Show and Little America are part of the problem. They have promising premises, but in being engineered to upset as few people as possible, they become anodyne. The underlying problem with Little America that the stories it’s telling are inextricable from modern politics, and the intentional pull away from sharper points dulls and ultimately twists its effect.
There’s already a harmful notion that only certain immigrants should be allowed into the U.S. based on “merit,” and presenting immigrant stories of triumph solely as those in which merit is earned adds fuel to the fire. Apple TV Plus has a lot of money and big names behind its programming, but Dickinson seems to be the only show that truly stands out, in having allowed its creator to go wild in introducing Emily Dickinson to a new generation. The show doesn’t play it safe (Wiz Khalifa plays Death!), which makes it all the more compelling. Little America could stand to follow suit, as could Apple TV Plus’ programming on the whole.
Disclosure: Little America is based on true stories originally published by Epic Magazine, a subsidiary of Vox Media, which is also Polygon’s parent company.