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Coming to America: TV's immigrant experience

From “Pilgrims” to “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Master of None,” television offers fresh looks at a hot topic.

From left to right: Clem Cheung, Kelvin Yu, Aziz Ansari, Shoukath Ansari and Fatima Ansari in a scene from Netflix’s “Master of None”
From left to right: Clem Cheung, Kelvin Yu, Aziz Ansari, Shoukath Ansari and Fatima Ansari in a scene from Netflix’s “Master of None”Read more


ARMED, internally divided and so ill-prepared for life in a new country that one of their first acts was to steal food from the people who were here first, the passengers from the Mayflower weren't exactly model immigrants.

Watch "Saints & Strangers," which concludes tonight on National Geographic, or Ric Burns' film "The Pilgrims" tomorrow on PBS' "American Experience," and it's hard not to marvel at the forbearance of the Pokanoket leader Massasoit in not yielding to pressure to put an abrupt end to the newcomers' American experience.

This year, as we come together to offer thanks for the yield of that most unpromising beginning, immigration's likely to be a hot topic (at least in those gatherings that haven't blocked discussion of anything on Facebook that doesn't involve kittens or hero canines).

Looking for a way to talk about immigration that won't get a gravy boat hurled at you? Try television.

Because beyond the battlegrounds of cable news and eye-opening historical treatments, the recent uptick in TV diversity has led to more attention to the immigrant experience, attention that includes the perspective that South African Trevor Noah has brought to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Much of the fictional treatment, granted, is from the viewpoint of an assimilated second generation. Aziz Ansari's character, Dev, in his Netflix series, "Master of None," and his best friend, Brian (Kelvin Yu), are as Americanized as any of their friends whose parents were born here. That makes the series' episode "Parents" - in which Ansari's real mother and father play Dev's parents - all the more interesting.

Because as tech- and pop-culture-savvy as Dev and Brian may appear, it's their parents who've mastered a dizzying array of coping skills and whose journeys make their children's lives appear static, not to mention safe.

And that's in some ways the dream. We all want our children in a place they won't be forced to flee.

Yet, when the separatists who traveled on the Mayflower decided to leave Leiden, after fleeing England to escape religious persecution, it was in part, according to writer Nathaniel Philbrick in "The Pilgrims," because they feared the very assimilation their descendants would someday demand.

Their children, they worried, were becoming too Dutch. And whatever their hopes for this new world, it didn't involve adopting native customs here, either.

Nearly 400 years later, the push-and-pull of assimilation comes up in ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat." Ostensibly told from the perspective of a young Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), the hip-hop-mad, American-born son of Taiwanese immigrants, it's also about his parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), strivers who embrace American customs to differing degrees.

Sharp writing and Wu's delivery have made Jessica a breakout character, one whose tiger-mom instincts are tested daily by her oldest son and tempered by Louis' enthusiasm for all things American.

But what is "American"?

To Mindy Lahiri, Mindy Kaling's very much assimilated, shopaholic ob-gyn on Hulu's "The Mindy Project," it's the freedom to live a life very different from her Indian-born parents.

An unmarried mother in a committed relationship, Kaling's character was raised Hindu but isn't religious, which has so far created more friction with her son's Roman Catholic father, Danny (Chris Messina), than with her parents, who've conveniently moved back to India.

Like Dev, of "Master of None," and Eddie, of "Fresh Off the Boat," and like Kaling herself, Mindy's a pop-culture junkie. Her medical degree may or may not reflect the value her parents put on education, but her often hilarious materialism is meant, I think, to be all-American.

It's no doubt reassuring to advertisers to see that it takes a generation or less to turn newcomers into people who think, talk and shop like every other comedic character on television.

It's good, though, that these shows explore the differences, not just the similarities, between their main characters and those around them.

Because those whose recent roots lie elsewhere offer opportunities not only to reflect the still-changing face of America, but to get beyond seeing it as a place defined entirely by trivia and consumption.


Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray