The anthology series Little America has turned out to be both the first great new show of 2020 and the first great series from AppleTV+. Across its eight-episode first season (Apple has already ordered a second), the series follows immigrants from all over the world as they experience America in different ways, with stories as apt to generate smiles as well as tears.
One of the key creative forces on the series is Lee Eisenberg, who in his days writing for The Office shared responsibility, ironically, for some of that show’s darkest episodes, like “Dinner Party” or “Scott’s Tots” (the one where Michael fails to deliver on his promise to provide college tuition for an entire class of kids). Eisenberg, who co-developed Little America with Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (and who co-wrote the summer movie hit Good Boys with his frequent partner Gene Stupnitsky), spoke with Rolling Stone about the challenges — and surprises — of adapting stories from the original Epic magazine feature. “So many of the people involved in the show have comedy backgrounds,” he says. “I think if you had asked us from the beginning, we would have said we were leading with comedy and that there’d be a little bit of heart in it. And then when we got into it, we realized that the show led with more heart.”
How did you decide which stories you would tell in these eight episodes?
For an anthology show, there are so many considerations. We had two excellent stories from India, and felt if we’re doing only eight stories, we shouldn’t double up on any countries. First and foremost for us it was: Do we connect with the character? What are we trying to say with the story? What are the themes — is it funny, is it tragic? Where are we leaving it? We don’t want every single story to be contemporary, we don’t want every story to end on an up note or on a down note. With an anthology, you’re almost creating a playlist. But within it, there was just a feel we wanted the episodes to have. Even if the episodes are written or directed by different people, the collective of me and Kumail and Emily and Alan Yang and Sian Heder and Josh Bearman — all the executive producers of the show — we were really the ones going through it and making sure the tone of it remained consistent, even if from one to the next we’re saying different things. The stories came from different places. The Chinese episode on the cruise ship came from a general meeting we had with Tze Chun, who is a filmmaker we like. He started talking about his own experience and his mom’s experience, and we realized we should maybe do his story. That was not what was expected at all. The rock one, where the immigrant is trying to build a house for his family, that was one that from the beginning felt to all of us us like what we wanted the show to be. But as we got more into the show, we discovered more things.
With the idea of a playlist, once you chose these eight episodes, how did you decide what order to present them in?
We tried attacking it from every angle possible. We wanted to have a balance of male/female. But more than anything, it was tone. The India episode [Episode One] was one we loved from the beginning. That was one of the earliest we worked on. That had such a clear drive. There’s some comedy in it, but it’s a little more heartbreaking, and I think the end leaves on much more of an ellipses than some of the other episodes. And we didn’t want to start with an episode — and hopefully none of them are this — where we’re pulling too many punches, or everything’s tied up in a neat bow. The squash one [Episode Two], I always likened to a sports movie, and I’ve never seen one about squash, and one about an undocumented immigrant. I love the montages in that, and thought that actress was just killer. That one leaves with a lot of hope. I remember the first time watching that in the editing room with Kumail and Arthur Spector, who’s one of the other executive producers, tears were streaming down my face, and I had no idea if anyone else reacted that way. It’s a dark editing room, and I looked over, and everyone was quiet, and I realized everyone was also tearing up. She’s so lovable, and where she starts and where she ends up is incredible. So that was inspiring.
But we were really careful. The point of these stories is not that every immigrant has superpowers, and every immigrant goes on to work for Goldman Sachs. And the point isn’t “Woe is me.” The point is that everyone’s going through the same stuff. It doesn’t matter what skin color you have. You want to fall in love, you want to get a better job, a better place to live. Sometimes it’s hard to fit in at a new school. Those were the things we really wanted to cover. The Nigerian cowboy one might be my favorite episode. It balances things: It ends on a positive note suggesting everything’s going to be OK, but nothing has been resolved. He’s grown personally, but his life hasn’t improved in the macro.
That was my favorite too. When we get to the moment where the professor tells him to spend his first paycheck on something personal, and we cut to him on a motorcycle like his dad’s … things got a little dusty in my room.
Also, the scene where he’s sitting on the wooden fence, and the cowboy comes over to his family while he’s dictating the message. I think Sian Heder, who’s one of our EPs, she came up with these fantasy elements of the tapes, and enlivening it with the people in there. That was something we were talking about: How do you deal with time? How do you deal with the country of origin so that it doesn’t feel like everything is so straightforward? I like in the Indian episode, where he throws up the sheet, and he puts it down, he’s four years older, and then he cries in the sink and looks up and is an adult.
Not all of the episodes are like that, but a lot of them unfold over a long period of time for the characters, even though it’s 30 minutes for us.
The silent episode takes place over the course of seven or 10 days. To go back to that playlist question, we wanted every episode to feel like it’s part of a whole. But we didn’t want the silent episode as number one. That would have confused people about what the show was. But having something like that in the middle felt right. Like, “What am I watching?” But hopefully, we have enough credit in the bank at that point that you trust us.
That one initially had quite a bit of dialogue in it, if you can believe that. Zachary Quinto we cast as this meditation guru. He was guiding the people in the seminar and the audience through the episode. He would tell people to reflect on their past lives, all that New Age-y stuff. And as we started getting into the episode, we started saying, “What if we made it silent in the first five minutes?” We tried it, and I think it was Alan Yang who said, “If we’re going to do a silent episode, why don’t we go for it?” So we did it as it ultimately is, and we sent it to Apple, fearing we’d get a note back like, “We cast Zachary Quinto, he’s the biggest actor we cast in Season One, and you’re not giving him zero lines.” To their credit, they saw it. It feels very different. I’d never really seen an episode of TV like that.
What was it like overall working with Apple? They have a lot of veteran TV executives, but the company as a whole is brand-new to this.
We pitched the show, and in the room, it was clear that they immediately got it. The show feels on-brand for what I think of Apple. Apple feels international to me, it feels aspirational. The executive notes were smart, they let us do our thing. They challenged us at the right times. One thing we debated a lot with them, and we landed where I wanted to, was whether or not to have the pictures at the end of the episodes with the real subjects. The potential for the show to have an element of treacle to it was something we were terrified about. When you watch biopics and you see the real subjects at the end, sometimes that can feel really satisfying, but it can feel manipulative. We spent a lot of time on what we were saying on the subjects and about the episode you’d just seen, and the pictures that we chose, and we also wanted each one of them to feel different. So in the cookie-lady episode, it looks like you’re on a static shot, and then you pull back and realize, “Holy shit, this woman is famous enough in Louisville for her picture to be in the airport.”
They’re figuring it out. It’s a funny thing to work with a company the size of Apple and also feel like you’re working with a start-up. The important thing is having great executives, and they’re really smart and gave really good notes, and I feel the show is better for them having been a part of it. And that’s something I haven’t said about every show I’ve worked on.
In terms of avoiding treacle, were there times in the edit where you realized the tone had gone awry, and you had to pull things back?
Take the squash episode. I am not an undocumented immigrant, and no one who wrote it was. There were a few times in the writing where we had lines where the character was feeling sorry for herself, and said, “I’m undocumented!” My instinct was, if somebody is going through something like that, that is hanging over them always, but on a day-to-day basis, I believe that that character was worried that she wasn’t going to ace her geometry test, and that there’s a boy in school she has a crush on, or her mom is being annoying about cleaning her room. Those are things that are present. If you’re telling a slice-of-life story where you’re really getting into character, I wanted to make sure that it never felt like an Afterschool Special. The word “undocumented” is not one she uses every day of her life. It’s something that is part of her, but more than that, there’s all this stuff hanging over her. So we talked a lot about what is unspoken. In every episode, the drama is so personal. It isn’t “The president’s daughter has been kidnapped” or “Can someone solve their own murder with three days left to live?” So if the show works, the sleight of hand we’re doing is that within a half-hour, you care about the characters.
You’ve changed most of the character names and changed some key details. How far did you feel comfortable changing things for the purposes of these episodes?
We’re very careful to say that the stories are inspired by true stories, but they’re not based on true stories. These are not biopics, and they’re not documentaries. The thing we wanted more than anything was to capture the feeling — the emotion of what a character was going through at that time in their life. That was really challenging. So during the writing process, we were going back and re-interviewing people: “How did you feel in this moment? Were you isolated, were you excited, were you nervous?” In the cowboy episode, that whole hamburger [monologue], I wish I could take credit for it, but that was something the subject just said when he came to the States, hamburgers made no sense to him. In the writers room, he went on this run about it, and we built off of that. Those types of details were really essential to us. More than anything, we want to honor these people’s stories. None of them, with the exception of Tze, have connections to the business. So helping them understand that we changed where they lived, or we cut out a character who was in their life, having those conversations was really important.
We’re just starting to show the subjects their episodes. Probably no part of this process has made me more nervous. Just waiting for the responses was terrifying. But so far, they’re great! The subject of the Syrian episode said, “I’ve never seen someone who looks like me on TV before.” So from his standpoint, we honored his story, and as a queer Syrian immigrant, I think that he felt, “Good. There’s more of me out there, and I want them to see this, and to know that there’s hope out there, and you can get to a place that’s safe.” That would be incredible.
Looking at a specific example of a change you made, the real cookie lady had just gotten remarried around the time she started the business. Why did you opt to not include that?
We tried different versions of it. Sometimes, when we try telling a love story in that short a period of time, it felt like we were falling into movie tropes. How do you tell an entertaining romantic comedy while this woman is trying to get her business off the ground? It felt like we were splitting focus a little bit. For every story, there’s no way to tell all the pieces of it. For that one, we loved this idea that she was one of 27 children, and her parents picked her as the one they could afford to send here. There was so much promise for her, and instead, she flames out, and she has a kid, and decides she’s going to become a baker. This idea that people move here to improve their lives, and her family wants her to come home, it felt like that was a story, and was more compelling than “she meets a guy and they fall in love.” It’s not that that’s not compelling, but in a half-hour, trying to tell both, it felt like we weren’t succeeding at either.
I appreciated that you kept these to a half-hour. But it’s streaming; there aren’t time slots to fit. Why did you guys decide to stick to 30 minutes apiece?
I like leaving people wanting more. There are so many hours that feel interminable, and I think if you can tell a story that’s captivating, and you have the beats that you need … Sometimes breadth is your friend, but sometimes things are paced incorrectly. We didn’t want to tell every single moment of every person’s life. We wanted to do it as a snapshot.