Times Have Changed, but Little America Returns for S2 as Sweet and Smart as Before

Much has changed in the nearly three years between “Little America” seasons. Back in January 2020, when the half-hour episodic anthology first debuted, Apple TV+ was only in its third month of existence. Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and Lee Eisenberg’s adaptation of true stories featured in Epic Magazine was just the streamer’s eighth series. Sian Heder, an executive producer and co-showrunner, was best known for her years writing on “Orange Is the New Black.” An orange-haired cretin still controlled the White House, and American immigration policy was summed up by the enraging phrase “kids in cages.”

Today, Apple TV+ has expanded from drama, comedy, and family programming into unscripted, animation, and live sports (including Major League Baseball, Soccer, and possibly even the NFL). Its shows and movies have won the highest honors in TV and film, including Heder taking home an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (and her film, “CODA,” winning Best Picture). Outside the entertainment sphere, an experienced leader has taken over the lease at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and any immigration discussion is as likely to touch on American citizens looking to move out as any prospective residents looking to move in.

Such perspective shifts could create hurdles for “Little America” Season 2, an original series telling short, sweet, one-off stories in an era when audiences are drawn to big, serialized dramas — and without any A-list cast members to boot. Season 1 mainly made an impact through critical appreciation and direct comparison; many of Apple’s initial offerings were disappointing, while “Little America” made for a pleasant surprise. Season 2 is operating in a different ecosystem, but what adjustments there are may only exist in the eye of the beholder. The format and focus remain unchanged. Much of what was said about the initial batch of episodes could be said about the latest grouping. Thematically, Season 2 tends to dwell on contrasting viewpoints that come to common resolutions, but even that topical concentration serves the joyful inspirations always inherent to the series’ heart.

Season 2 starts with its splashiest piece of casting: “Minari” breakout Alan S. Kim as Luke, a young boy living and working in Detroit. His mother (Ki Hong Lee) owns a hat shop, and — when a local radio personality, Martha Jean (Phylicia Rashad) stops by — Luke makes for a natural salesman. Still, his parents expect him to be a doctor, even when Luke shows an early affinity for art. The typical push-and-pull proceeds from there, as a college-aged Luke (played by Lee Jung-Eun) is torn between expectations and excitement, responsibilities and results, his parents and himself.

Without giving away the ending, “Mr. Song” doesn’t pick one lane or the other; it carves its own path alongside Luke, making touching concessions and tributes along the way. The story’s universality makes it widely relatable — what kid hasn’t split, somehow, from their parents’ expectations? — while the specificity it finds within Luke’s true story helps the episode tip-toe around clichés. Similar notes apply to the season’s other generational studies, “The Ninth Caller” (Episode 3) and “Paper Piano” (Episode 7). Both weave parent-child arcs into their distinct tales: the former about a radio call-in contestant motivated by her disapproving father to win a kiss-a-car contest, and the latter about an Afghani fast-food cook who dreams of honoring his parents by becoming a concert pianist. Sachini (Isuri Wijesundara) wrestles with falling short of her immigrant parent’s impossible expectations, while Zahir (Mohammad Amiri) is torn between pursuing the dream he shares with his folks and moving back home so they can be together.

In these stories and the rest, “Little America” consistently recognizes reality. Zahir is lucky to live in America, where he can play music without the Taliban threatening to kill him for it. But he’s unlucky to be here, too. His job frying chicken takes up too much time and puts him in harm’s way from obstinate customers. Meanwhile, the laws keep changing, delaying a reunion with his mother for months, then years, then indefinitely. In America, Zahir can pursue his passions, but in Afghanistan, he could be with his family. What does one mean without the other? How does anyone choose between such intrinsic desires? “Paper Piano” confronts these questions honestly and, as written by Brian Savelson and directed by Aron Gaudet & Gita Pullapilly, avoids prioritizing America’s clear attributes over its frustrating flaws.

Stacy Rose in “Little America”

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Still, Season 2’s top entries emphasize individuality: the fleet-footed and immersive “Camel on a Stick” (Episode 4), and Episode 2, “The Bra Whisperer.” The latter bounces back and forth in time, starting when Ines (Stacy Rose) lands on the front page of The New York Times metro section. Labeled “the bra whisperer,” her shop in the back of a wedding gown showroom soon attracts more clients than the space can handle. Her daughter pressures Ines to get her own space, but she prefers her modest accommodations — a perspective given added relevance when we flash back and see her first job in New York: nannying for an Orthodox Jewish family.

The mother, Hannah (Michal Birnbaum), runs her own bra shop in the basement, and soon enough, Ines is helping out there, as well. Her soft touch and considerate approach to every customer earns her a faithful following, but even more important to Ines is feeling like part of a family. She has to work for years before she can afford to bring her daughter to New York from Belize, and when she does, Ines is already adopting select customs from Hannah’s faith. “The Bra Whisperer,” written by Mfoniso Udofia and directed by Tara Miele, captures different cultures’ disparate ideas of family, while keeping its spotlight on Ines as she’s forced to forge her own path forward. Buoyed by Rose’s illuminating performance, the episode stands out for similar reasons to its central character, as well as “Little America” overall: After taking what it needs from the past, it confidently becomes its very own story.

Grade: B+

“Little America” Season 2 premieres Friday, December 9. All eight episodes will be released at once.

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