For a show that has been executed so beautifully, oozing with emotional resonance, it’s amazing to think no one wanted to green light it.
Little America is an eight-episode anthology series, each chapter telling the story of a different immigrant experience in the US. That’s ranged from a Uganda woman selling cookies to an undocumented Latina teen with a gift for squash.
Each true story is a little slice of life of what it’s like to live in the US when you look different, sound different and sometimes feel different to those around you.
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“It’s such a simple pitch, an anthology show based on true stories, there’s so much possibility there,” executive producer and co-creator Kumail Nanjiani says. “I can’t believe nobody had done it. And we thought we should do it before anybody jumps on it.
“Turns out, people aren’t really jumping on the idea of making a show like this. I think people are still nervous to make shows that star people who aren’t mainstream celebrities in America. The people on this show don’t look like of what we think of what a mainstream American looks like, or sounds like.
“So there’s a lot of hesitancy there, people were just afraid to have protagonists who were different to the protagonists we’d seen in American pop culture so far.”
Co-creator, executive producer and Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon adds: “We pitched the show to many different places and most of them said ‘no’. I think it still feels like a big swing for a lot of traditional networks and streamers. So we’re really happy Apple was willing to take a chance on us.”
Nanjiani believes this series couldn’t exist on network TV yet, “They’re so locked into what they think entertainment should be, and I think that they would think it probably wouldn’t or couldn’t reach a mainstream audience.”
The idea actually came from Lee Eisenberg (The Office), who then approached Nanjiani and Gordon (who had been nominated for an Oscar for their screenplay for The Big Sick, based on their own meet-cute story), and Alan Yang (who won an Emmy for writing Master of None).
Working with Joshuah Bearman at Epic Magazine, the team sourced over a hundred stories from real-life American immigrants, before choosing eight that represented a variety of origins and where they landed in the US.
“Oftentimes, you see these shows are always set in New York or LA, in these big cities, but we wanted to select stories that showcase other parts of the country, Yang tells news.com.au. “There’s the story of a Nigerian man who moved to Oklahoma and started dressing like a cowboy, and the story of a man escaping Syria as a refugee and landed in Boise, Idaho.”
Of course, even though they’re true stories, details and names have been changed.
“We always said we wanted to capture the emotional truth of these stories, and the essence of the characters,” Yang says. “We saw this as eight character studies and snapshots into their lives.”
There’s a novelty to a show like Little America – not in a condescending way but in the sense that it’s literally something we hadn’t seen before. And for those working on it, experiences that hadn’t been had before.
“One of the things we’re very happy with was some of the actors told us, ‘Oh, I almost always play a terrorist, in this episode, I’m a family man’ while another said, ‘This is the first time I’ve held a grocery bag for a role that actually has groceries in it instead of a bomb.’ And that’s insane.
“The point for us was that these are all human beings with three dimensional personalities. They have flaws and they have strengths, and they’re funny and they can be sad and they can be all of these different, real human personality traits.
“The important thing was they are our mothers and our fathers, and our brothers and our sisters. So many of the people who worked on the show are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.”
That means the filmmakers worked hard to cast the right people and assemble the right writers and directors, including people who didn’t get the same opportunities as their colleagues because of how they look and what their name looked like on a resume.
Yang says that if they needed a Nigerian actor who could speak Ebo, then they found him. They also auditioned people in Uganda, or people who could speak Mandarin and Farsi.
Nanjiani says: “The way that Hollywood has happened in the last few decades, a lot of those people hadn’t worked a lot. So we got playwrights, we got people who had never directed before, we got people who had never written a TV episode before.
“We wanted writers and directors who had a real connection to the material, who were either from the place where the character is from, or their parents were.”
Nanjiani says he couldn’t think too much about the extra pressure that comes from championing a project that was different, with diverse stories – the unspoken pressure that feels like if you stuff up, it’s not that you can’t do it again, it’s that no one can do it again.
“You can’t really think about that, you just do the best you can and hope for the best. That kind of pressure is a little unfair,” he says.
“I think the answer to that is we just need more diverse viewpoints in Hollywood storytelling, so that no one project has this pressure on it.”
Gordon says she hopes that there will be knock-offs of Little America, which has already been renewed for a second season.
“I want to see imitations, I want to see homages, I want to see all of it,” she says.
“I grew up in a very homogenous small town in the south, where there weren’t a lot of immigrants in our town. If you don’t have people in your life that are different than you, the next best thing you can do is consume art that involves people who are different from you.
“So my hope is people will see themselves in these stories, even if they have nothing in common with the people on screen. That’s really the most we’re hoping to contribute, a sense of our shared humanity.”
Little America is streaming now on Apple TV+
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