The Small Miracle of Immigrant Stories on TV

Marisol has black crescent-thick eyebrows and a lethal stare that can cut just about anyone down to size. She doesn’t come from much; she lives with her mom, who is a housekeeper, and her brother, who quit school to work as a day laborer, in a converted garage in San Diego. They fled Mexico and are among the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants working to build a better life in the US. Like many unauthorized residents, Marisol straddles the line between visible and unseen—doing just enough to get by but careful to never draw too much undue attention her way. When one school administrator notices potential, suggesting that there are scholarships Marisol can apply to for college, she snaps back, aware of the limits to her dreaming. “What,” she says, “you’re going to lend me your social security number?”

Even so, Marisol—played by Jearnest Corchado on the new Apple TV Plus anthology series Little America—is like most teenagers, desperate to fit in but defenseless against the social codes of high school. She uses an iPod, bought from Goodwill, and wears ripped Converse sneakers held together by duct tape. When an opportunity for new shoes presents itself—it requires her to join the Urban Squash League, the school’s summer tennis club—she jumps at the chance. The decision turns out to be a transformative one.

Based on true accounts published by Epic magazine, Little America strives to capture immigrant life in the US, joining a recent trend in TV-making that seeks empathy as much as it does authenticity. The thrill of Little America is how it so beautifully minds the gap between fiction (lies the Trump administration is quick to peddle) and reality (what is actually going on). Brimming with tenderness and punch, these accounts succeed because they resist that lazy and common impulse to treat the immigrant experience as fringe. Little America speaks with an authorial voice.

Most episodes are not preoccupied with the familiar tune—the terror of families being ripped apart by deportation—and instead search elsewhere; they juggle the reality of citizenship, of what it means to make a big life from the little you’ve been apportioned. We’re given front-row seating to fantastic otherworlds, the stories affectingly intelligent and undressed; a chaperone would only stall our illumination. Once consigned to the outermost regions of America, these stories are no longer a side stream. They’ve become some of the most meaningful currents on TV.

Marisol’s decision to join the squash team charts a new course for her—but she’s not the only one on a journey. Across the series’ eight episodes we meet characters of varying vividness. “The Cowboy” follows Iwegbuna (Conphidance), a Nigerian student at the University of Oklahoma. He’s a homesick overachiever, quick to prove his virtue, and often feels alienated as a result. He decides to take on a cowboy persona—“the African Howdy Doody,” as one friend jokes. But it’s serious business for him. “We respect our women,” he says at one point, over dinner. “We walk with confidence even though our country spat on us.” It’s 1983, and back in Nigeria the government is facing a possible military coup. Iwegbuna insists on returning home, but his brother demands he stay put: “Make something of yourself where you can.” It might as well be a tagline for the series.

In two of the show’s more gut-twisting episodes, a young, single mother from Uganda (“The Baker”) and a gay Syrian refugee (“The Son”) attempt to outrun the grip of family for better opportunities in the US. For the former, embracing her family’s legacy ends up being the key to small-town success, whereas the latter, after being granted asylum, must create a new life for himself in Idaho. The closing scene in a Boise drag bar suggests that you can, in fact, choose your family. The tiny marvels that these episodes become are a result of their attentive measurements: at the bone, these are stories about weight and distance—tolls at once physical and psychological—and what the journey does. How it tests, remakes, and surprises the best of us.

Party of Five, the newly launched Freeform reboot, is also about weight and distance, as many of its narrative threads pull from current headlines. The show takes its cues from the 1994 original, which ran on Fox for six seasons, with one major change: It’s not death that haunts the Acosta children, it’s the deportation of their parents back to Mexico. The four youngest children, all under 18, are placed in the care of the eldest Acosta, 24-year-old Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), who is protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and has dreams of being a musician. It’s a Trump-era show with a heart—one deeply informed by this moment of political emergency but not overly burdened by the issues.

Original Party of Five creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman have moved a fringe story to the center. The first batch of episodes is colored with the kind of devastation many of us only read about in the news and are quick to forget once new headlines antagonize our timelines: businesses being ruthlessly invaded by ICE agents, families inhumanely caged in detention centers, the endless unease that something bad is just around the corner. It’s got work to do; sometimes the show verges on the cookie-cutter sentimentality that cable family dramas are known for, but the power of Party of Five is in what it asks of us. It urges us to not look away.

More and more, we’re being exposed to the miracle of the immigrant experience, in all its richness and pain. On Fresh Off the Boat (ABC) and Jane the Virgin (The CW), in Superstore (NBC) and The Night Of (HBO). In fact, one of Ramy’s (Hulu) most dazzling episodes from the first season took a narrative detour—what’s become standard practice on prestige-level shows—focusing entirely on Maysa (the wonderful Hiam Abbass), the family matriarch who began working as a Lyft driver. I think about that episode a lot. I felt so grateful for it. How it afforded viewers a window into a sincere and sometimes crushingly concrete immigrant experience for older women who often feel lost, or even unloved, once their kids have matured into adulthood. It’s such an honest kind of looking—when we actually get to see each other from the other side.

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