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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Alan Yang on <i>Little America</i> and the limits of stories that are “ripped from the headlines”

Alan Yang on Little America and the limits of stories that are “ripped from the headlines”

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images, Apple TV+, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Little America has quickly become one of Apple TV+’s best-received series, even if, unlike The Morning Show, the majority of the star power is behind the scenes. Oscar nominees Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon co-produce the show along with The Office’s Lee Eisenberg, Orange Is The New Black alum Sian Heder, and Master Of None co-creator Alan Yang. The focus remains on everyday people and commonplace struggles, whose lives enrich and are enriched by the mélange of cultures in not-so-little America. They’re immigrants, yes, but the way producers like Yang approach the show, their path to citizenship isn’t the beginning or end of their humanity. But humanizing such characters remains very much on the minds of TV producers and writers, which is why The A.V. Club spoke with Yang, whose anthology show had just been renewed, at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. We talked about timeliness, model minorities, and the need to see yourself in the stories you consume.

The A.V. Club: One of the most striking elements of the series is that, while the stories are all very grounded, there’s little insertion of headlines and news stories. Your show isn’t necessarily banking on its timeliness. Was everybody on board with that decision from the beginning, or did some of the producers or writers think the show should name specific political leaders or specific laws?

Alan Yang: We were all very much on the same page from the beginning, and I think that’s because creatively, the team that was put together, we all saw the show the same way. Which is that these are human stories first. These are individual, specific people. And we want to tell the stories of their emotional journeys when they immigrated to America. It was never about having a political ax to grind or any overt messaging. It’s more about presenting these characters as human beings. Obviously, they’re inspired by real people, and we want them to behave like real people and have inner lives like real people. We wanted to make sure they were all three-dimensional beings with wants and needs and desires. That was really our priority, which is difficult enough in and of itself. Frankly, we really wanted to just make the stories compelling and emotionally rich and entertaining.

AVC: By limiting references to specific stories, you also prevent the show from feeling dated down the road.

AY: Yeah.

AVC: Timeliness really does seem to be a double-edged sword. This is something that’s come up more as I’ve spoken with different showrunners and creatives, particularly those who are people of color—how the “timely” label is important and can even be helpful in getting your point across. But then the question becomes, what happens when people forget that these are ongoing issues? What happens once these stories aren’t in the headlines anymore? Once there’s a return to normalcy, so many people pretend that it’s no longer an issue.

AY: Absolutely. And I think it’s great that people have been saying that the show feels relevant and timely in a way. But we also think that there’s a power in having the stories feel so universal and feel so, just truthful in some ways. And that’s almost more important for us rather than “ripped from the headlines” stories. So yeah, that was really a priority for us.

AVC: There’s something very classic about this idea, but it also signifies a new phase in storytelling or another stride made in representation, because you can just have these people be themselves without it turning into a polemic, as someone in [the TCA] panel said.

AY: Exactly. We don’t want to be preachy. We feel like people don’t like being preached to, especially not in their entertainment. We just want to tell the best stories possible, and to me, it’s sort of a quiet act of, not revolution, but certainly a defiance to just portray these people as people, as human beings. And that’s insane to say, but it’s the reality. It’s funny, a lot of people we’ve talked to have asked about the “political angle,” but it was actually the furthest thing from our minds when we were making the show. It was more about let’s make these stories really, really sing.

AVC: The show’s approach to sociopolitical realities is interesting, because the characters’ struggles are more universal, in that instead of having them grapple with this malevolent force of racism and oppression, they can just as easily get tripped up by their personal foibles. What was key to finding that balance in the story, so that you’re not quite ignoring it but you also avoid making it the focus?

AY: It felt like harping on overt racism might’ve distracted from the positive nature of the stories. I don’t even mean positive in a sentimental or cloying way. It’s more that we wanted the main characters of these stories to have a drive, to have their stories be about their hopes and dreams and wants and desires. Obviously, it’s also about the obstacles they face, but we wanted to keep the focus on the characters and the main leads of each of these episodes. For me, just having these eight leads look the way they do and act the way they do and feel things the way they do—to come from all these different countries, we felt like that was pretty powerful in and of itself. And so it felt like we didn’t need to gild the lily with a bunch of racist people in there.

AVC: You’ve really stretched yourself as far as the types of shows you’ve worked on and the types of stories you’re telling, whether it’s Parks And Recreation or Master Of None or Little America. You’ve been able to get more of a big picture look at both the reception to the shows and their creation. Something else that comes up as often as “timely” whenever there are stories about immigrants or Black and brown people—who have always been here—is this notion of humanizing people in these stories.

AY: Yeah.

AVC: I’m curious why you think that remains such an important element of this type of storytelling. Because at this point, it seems kind of strange to—it’s one thing to humanize a mythical figure, right? But does the fact that we’re still having to humanize huge portions of the population—people who are our parents, coworkers, and neighbors—mean we’re moving forward or standing still? Why is humanization always a part of this discussion? 

AY: Well, frankly, it’s because the representation of people who look like that has been pretty flat and for those of you who would say, for those people who would say, “Aren’t we past that now?” I don’t think we are. I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. We’re just starting.

I can speak to Asian people specifically, just because we had two movies in the last three years—that’s two in my lifetime essentially. So I feel like it’s the tip of the iceberg. And you really start to humanize, to use that word, when you see a ton of stories about these people and show a ton of different kinds of characters, right? I would love to see Asian American people portrayed in all sorts of lights. And that’s when it’s true representation, where there are all kinds of different characters. You have funny ones, you have mean ones, you have depressed ones, you have neurotic ones—heroic, courageous, all of these things. And that’s when you truly are on a somewhat level playing field. That’s when it’s really—that’s when you’re really getting somewhere. And we are just at the beginning.

I think it’s like something Jordan Peele said [in 2019, while in conversation with Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Ian Roberts —Ed.]. Someone asked him, “Well, are you going to make a movie about white people?” He was basically like, “I think I’ve seen enough of those movies. All my movies are going to be about Black people. What’s the problem with that?” When it comes to Black people, we still haven’t seen as many. And frankly, I feel similarly about Asian people. We’re just starting. I think that’s of a piece with something Emily V. Gordon said [in panel], is that, it’s also, it’s not just about focusing on the exceptional. Because when we talk about people of color and immigrants, even outside of TV, it’s that, you’ve always got to have the best version of that person because otherwise you can’t empathize with them.

AVC: It’s important to remind everyone there are plenty of mediocre people who were born here.

AY: [Laughs.] It’s true. But I mean, many different kinds of people’s lives are interesting. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s also true. It’s like, look, do I want to see an Indian American Indiana Jones? Yeah, for sure. Do I want to see an Asian American Squid In The Whale? We can do all of it, and we’re just, just scratching the surface.

AVC: Something that feels like a common thread in your shows like Little America and Forever is this idea of trying to make a better world, even if it’s the afterlife, which hopefully we won’t have to wait for. At the very least, you can always work on yourself.

AY: I don’t do as much self-assessment and self-reflection while I’m working, but it usually comes when I’m doing press. But I do feel like something that I’m trying to put in a lot of the stuff I work on is a fundamental optimism. I’m an optimistic person, and I feel like I’m a hopeful person and a positive person. And I feel like some of that bleeds into some of the stuff I’ve worked on. And that’s just my own disposition, and it’s not better or worse than anyone else’s. But it does inform and reflect in some of the stuff that I’ve done.

AVC: Little America was renewed before the show even premiered, so congratulations. Have you already started working on second season?

AY: It’s in the works and we are reading stories that Epic Magazine has researched. There’s some amazing ones and we’re very excited. It’s just beginning now and that’s very, very fun.

AVC: What was the dynamic like among you and the rest of the producers like Kumail, Lee, Emily, and Sian when you first started combing through these stories and figuring out how to break the first season?

AY: Oh, it was horrible. [Laughs.] No, it’s hard. It’s hard work, right? Writing isn’t a trivial, easy thing to do. I mean, look, it’s not coal mining, but it can be slow. It can be a slog and it happens in fits and starts. That’s where the hard work of making something worth watching happens. To me, that’s the very beginning of it—refusing to be satisfied with the linear, easy version of the story. Not being satisfied with the general version of a character. Instead, really drilling down on something specific and making sure that the character has the right motivation, that there are stakes to the story. That there’s turns in the story, that there’s proper escalation. And all of these things happen at the granular beginning, the inception of the story-breaking process. And Lee and Sian and all the writers on the show have done an extraordinary job with shaping the story clay—to be pretentious about it. It’s a thing. It’s a process, for sure.

AVC: Was there a particular story you were eager to adapt for TV or a moment from one of the stories you were sourcing that made you really proud to see it up on the screen?

AY: There’s a ton. Watching Conphidance in “The Cowboy” episode is unbelievable. And I would say the same thing about Jearnest [Corchado] in the Marisol episode, “The Jaguar.” And I was on set a lot for the Ai episode [“The Grand Prize Expo Winners”] that Tze Chun directed. In that last scene we shot above, on the deck of the boat, is of Angela Lin, who plays Ai, looking at this iceberg. The performance is really incredible there.

It really boiled down to the cast. I’ve named a lot of the cast members because they really brought these stories to life in a way that I think surpassed even our expectations from the script phase. And again, I don’t think a lot of these actors would have gotten the chance to be the protagonist in a TV show. So it’s cool to see. So many of them did an amazing job.

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