‘Party of Five’ and ‘Little America’: Immigrant Stories That Get the Job Done

In the opening minutes of Freeform’s “Party of Five,” Javier and Gloria Acosta (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola) are arrested by Immi...

In the opening minutes of Freeform’s “Party of Five,” Javier and Gloria Acosta (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola) are arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the restaurant they own and operate. They’re terrified, but also they’re confused. No, they don’t have papers. But they’ve been in America for two decades. They have five children. Why seize them now, after all this time?

“Things have changed,” one of the agents says.

So they have. Two decades ago, we didn’t have a government promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, or an administration erecting barriers even to legal immigration and refugees, or rising deaths among detained migrants, or a president declaring, “Our Country is FULL.”

And two decades ago, when the original “Party of Five” depicted five siblings raising one another without their parents, all it needed was the time-tested premise of killing off mom and dad.

Back then, the five Salinger siblings ran a family restaurant and shared a fabulous townhouse in the low-key aftermath of loss, in a community that sympathized with them. No one goes to a rally to rage against orphans.

Now, the five Acosta kids are in an ongoing trauma and a more vulnerable situation, managing their deported parents’ business while worrying about what else society might take from them.

The new “Party of Five,” from the original’s creators, Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, is in many ways so far a standard, sentimental family melodrama. But it has urgency and energy because, unlike so many TV remakes that try to turn back time, it’s all about how times have changed.

Freeform’s “Party” keeps the same template for its siblings. The oldest, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), is a womanizing musician who suddenly has to settle down as the family unit’s only remaining adult. The fraternal twins, Beto (Niko Guardado) and Lucia (Emily Tosta), suddenly have life-changing stresses on top of their high-school woes, while the brainy younger sister, Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi), is balled up with anxiety. (There’s also a baby brother, who has no lines but capably turns the emotional screws.)

The big difference is that their parents are still alive, and that’s the show’s biggest early strength. Death is a finite blow; family separation is a chronic torment. Javier and Gloria are just hours away in Mexico — they Skype to send their love and micromanage the business — but separated torturously by the impenetrable scrim of the law. It’s a kind of living ghost story.

So the Acostas still have their parents, unlike the Salingers, but they also have far less privilege. There’s the looming possibility that Emilio, who entered the country with his parents, could lose the protection he has under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Later episodes also introduce other immigrant perspectives, from a runaway teenager Lucia befriends to a teacher who looks down on undocumented families like the Acostas for making things harder “for the rest of us.”)

It’s a compelling premise, though the show still needs to flesh out the kids as characters. The most interesting dynamic is between Beto and Lucia, who had always seemed opposites (he struggles in school and social life, she’s a conscientious A student) but now find themselves meeting in the middle.

But early on, the strongest aspect of the show is how it commits to an agonizing situation that is easy for unaffected people to simply look away from — much like the images of children in cages that faded from the news, even as the detentions continued.

In the pilot’s most wrenching scene, the Acosta kids watch as their parents are wrested from them in a detention center, and Javier urges Lucia to keep her dignity and let everyone know “who we are.” She answers angrily: “They don’t care who we are.” At heart, “Party of Five” aims to prove her wrong.

It’s not alone in this. Another reboot, “Roswell, N.M.” on the CW, weaves in the real-life issue of immigration with a metaphorical story of space aliens. Story lines about raids, detention and deportation have been written into the recently finished “Orange Is the New Black,” Fox’s otherwise forgettable “Deputy” and the big-box workplace sitcom “Superstore.”

But one of the strongest responses to our moment draws not on current headlines but on the recent immigrant past. “Little America,” an anthology whose first season arrives on Apple TV Plus on Friday, describes American immigration as a complicated love story, one made more bittersweet by knowing the ugly turns that story has recently taken.

“Little America,” whose producers include Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”), Alan Yang (“Master of None”) and Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”), bases its half-hour episodes on a series of articles in Epic magazine. It feels existentially political, though it’s never overtly so. Its mode is not angry or didactic but full-throatedly patriotic — a spirit-of-2015, “Immigrants, we get the job done” belief that making America bigger makes it better.

The individual stories are short and pithy. (One, set at a silent meditation retreat, feels like an extended setup for a punch line.) But collectively, the show’s understanding of the immigrant experience is complex and nuanced.

In “Little America,” the impulse to pick up stakes and move is hopeful, but it inevitably comes with loss. It’s about aspiration and hustle and dreams, but it’s also about homesickness and alienation and loneliness.

The protagonists are at once fascinated with and confounded by America. In “The Cowboy,” a lonely Nigerian college student (Conphidance) in early ’80s Oklahoma takes to wearing boots and a Stetson hat, which are both icons of his new surroundings and a nostalgic reminder of the Westerns he watched as a kid in his village. But he still can’t get over the American “sickness” of dousing hamburgers in ketchup: “When God made the meat, do you think God said to Adam, ‘This must have the sauce’?”

The immigrants of “Little America,” documented or otherwise, are not universally accepted. (There are deportations and xenophobia here, too.) But they’re more intensely American for having opted in.

They connect to elements of a new culture and make them their own. An undocumented high school girl from Mexico (Jearnest Corchado) becomes a squash champion; a baker’s daughter (Kemiyondo Coutinho) moves from Uganda to Louisville, Ky., and starts a business selling chocolate-chip cookies, a foreign confection her mother always dismissed as “too sweet.”

The characters can seem naïve in their belief in America’s possibilities, like the Iranian entrepreneur in “The Rock” (Shaun Toub), a “Shark Tank” superfan who buys a property encumbered by a massive boulder, certain that he can remove the obstacle that defeated its past owners. They’re not always right or successful, but that belief is a kind of superpower: They’re unencumbered by the native citizen’s assumptions about what can and can’t change.

Because the episodes are based on true stories, they’re set in the past, anywhere from the 1960s to the last decade. They never mention current politics. Yet the unspoken contrast between the past and now somehow makes a more potent statement.

The season’s final episode, “The Son,” about a gay Syrian refugee (Haaz Sleiman) applying for asylum in the still-welcoming United States, feels especially like a dispatch from another time and another land, a kind of alternative history. (The quirky, quixotic story about the Iranian immigrant and the boulder seemed to age a decade after I watched it in early January — just before United States border agents began stopping Iranian-Americans re-entering their own country.)

“Little America” feels both aware of this its timeliness and stubbornly hopeful that there is something timeless in its stories’ appeal. The episodes can be, like those chocolate-chip cookies, a touch sweet. But they’re placing a bet that our American palates haven’t grown too jaded for that.

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Newsrust: ‘Party of Five’ and ‘Little America’: Immigrant Stories That Get the Job Done
‘Party of Five’ and ‘Little America’: Immigrant Stories That Get the Job Done
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