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In The Mix
May 21, 2020

Coming to America

On the way to Little America, Lee Eisenberg found a dream team to help him tell immigrant stories.

Neil Turitz
  • “The Jaguar” episode of Little America, the life of an undocumented high school student (Jearnest Corchado) is changed by her squash coach (John Ortiz), who tells her, “Inside of you there is a jaguar.”

  • Showrunner Lee Eisenberg (center) on location.

    David Giesbrecht

Watching Little America, an anthology series about the immigrant experience, you wouldn't imagine it was the brainstorm of a comedy writer.

Lee Eisenberg got his big break on The Office, then wrote Bad Teacher and cocreated Hello Ladies with Stephen Merchant. Last summer, he cowrote and produced the raunchy hit Good Boys.

So even he's a little surprised to be making an AppleTV+ series that works the heartstrings more than the funnybone.

"When I was first thinking about it, I thought of it as a comedy, and that we'd try and get a little heart in there," he says in his Hollywood Boulevard office.

"But as we started developing it, it became clear that the heart was the lead, and the comedy was hanging off that. Which is really different from how my career has been up to now."

The idea came to Eisenberg after watching the "Parents" episode of Master of None, the Emmy-winning Netflix series.

Eisenberg's father is from Israel, so he thought the topic merited not just a single episode, but a whole series. He reached out to Joshuah Bearman, co-editor of Epic magazine, which publishes gripping true stories.

"They have a ton of researchers," Eisenberg explains, "and I thought it would be a good source. Josh loved the idea, and for the next six months, all these stories started coming in."

Next, he called his friend Alan Yang — cocreator and executive producer of Master of None — and asked him to come on board. Yang also loved the idea.

So did Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, fresh off their Oscar nomination for writing The Big Sick. They wrote the pilot with Eisenberg, who says, "I've never had anything where my first choice kept saying 'yes,' like it was my own dream team. Such a smart, diverse and ambitious group of people."

The episodes are likewise diverse, and each is based on a true story.

In "The Jaguar," an angry and aimless Mexican teen finds her purpose playing squash and turns her life around. In "The Grand Prize Expo Winners," a Chinese single mother who's done everything for her children takes them on a cruise and realizes she's losing them.

Every episode, happy or sad, evokes emotions. Even Eisenberg is not immune.

"'The Jaguar,' we watched the first cut of it, me and Kumail and Arthur Spector [also an executive producer]. We're all in editing together, the lights are dark, and at the end, I had tears in my eyes.

"They weren't speaking, and I was thinking, 'Oh, I'm gonna turn around and I'm gonna be crying, and they're gonna say it's not working.' And then I saw Kumail couldn't talk, and Arthur couldn't talk, and I thought, 'Okay. We might have something here.'"

While AppleTV+ execs have not shared numbers, they say viewership is rising. Season two, Eisenberg says, will focus more on communities, with each episode remaining focused on stories of real people, no matter their countries of origin.

"If we can tell human stories, that's the main thing," he says. "Everyone wants the same stuff. Everyone wants to fall in love, everyone wants to provide for their family, they want to feel safe. If that is resonating with people, that's exciting."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2020

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