January 19, 2020 at 3:40 pm EST | by John Paul King
Apple’s ‘Little America’ scores big telling immigrant stories – including queer ones
Adam Ali dances with Haaz Sleiman in “The Son,” the 8th episode of the Apple TV+ show “Little America” (Image courtesy Apple+)

When “Little America” dropped on Apple TV+ on Friday, expectations were definitely high.

Coming from a writing and producing team that includes “Big Sick” writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, alongside “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang, Lee Eisenberg, Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis, the immigrant-themed anthology show was already being critically lauded, and the fledgling streaming service had so much confidence in their new series they they had renewed it for a second season before the first had even made its debut.

Judging from the response of critics and audiences after the January 17 premiere, Apple’s confidence was well-founded.

TV Line called it Apple TV’s “best show yet,” while BGR Online said it “justifies a subscription all by itself.” The LA Times proclaimed it as “the crown jewel of TV’s immigration wave.”

On social media, viewers have been equally enthusiastic in their praise, with comments on Twitter under the “Little America” hashtag saying things like “Loved Little America so much that I watched it all in one go,” and “This is something special that should be shared.”

Based on a true stories series in Epic Magazine, the show goes “beyond the headlines,” as the official description reads, “to look at the funny, romantic, heartfelt, inspiring and unexpected lives of immigrants in America, at a time when their stories are more relevant than ever.” Each stand-alone episode relates the narrative of a different American immigrant, following the hopes, dreams, and hardships of the immigrant experience. The stories are powerful enough in their own right, and inescapably political in today’s oppressively nationalistic climate – indeed, as the Pakistani-American Nanjiani recently observed in an interview, “Just by saying that immigrants are human beings with hopes and desires and likes and dislikes in this climate is a radical statement” – but the show’s fine writing and acting keep the focus on character, which makes every episode just as inescapably human.

While each episode is a gem unto itself, LGBTQ viewers will undoubtedly find particular affinity with the season’s final installment – “The Son,” directed by Stephen Dunn, who also co-wrote with Amrou Al-Kadhi. It tells the story of Rafiq, a closeted Syrian man whose inadvertent outing to his family sparks an escape that will ultimately bring him to America. Based on the real-life story of a Syrian named Shadi, it’s an emotional roller-coaster ride that offers a layered and compassionate document of authentic queer experience; for LGBTQ audiences, the young protagonist’s journey – his escape from the homophobia and repression of his family and their culture, his building of a “queer family” along the way, and his joy upon finding himself in a place where he can not only finally be free, but be and accepted and loved, just as he is, by the people around him – should be profoundly relatable.

What makes it all the more profound, sadly, is that the true story on which the episode is based would have a very different outcome if it happened today. As revealed by Dunn in an interview with Queerty, the real-life Rafiq would have been denied his asylum request if it had been submitted in Trump’s America; indeed, the episode “almost never happened” because the actor chosen to play Rafiq’s more effeminate friend Zain (Adam Ali, a Lebanese-born resident of Manchester, UK) was unable to enter America for filming due to Trump’s “travel ban.” Fortunately, the producers and the studio were willing to undergo the considerable difficulty of moving production from New Jersey to Canada – a decision that Dunn says left him “floored.”

Watching “The Son,” audiences will undoubtedly agree with Dunn’s assertion that Ali was the only actor for the role; he is utterly genuine and endearing, and his own journey is reflected onscreen by an inner strength and resilience that can never really be faked. He is the perfect grounding force for Haaz Sleiman, whose quietly desperate longing as Rafiq captures our hearts from the moment we meet him, and between the two of them, these actors bring us to a climactic scene that packs a bigger emotional punch than most of us would ever expect from a 32-minute-long episode of television.

No spoilers here, but once you’ve watched, you’ll never listen to Kelly Clarkson the same way again.

Watch the official trailer for “Little America” below.

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