The Big Wave of Pro-Immigrant TV Sitcoms Taking On Trump
Networks have unveiled a number of primetime TV sitcoms focused on the plight of immigrants this season, from NBC’s “Sunnyside” to CBS’s “Bob Hearts Abishola.”
Never mind “America First” President Donald Trump and his fiercely nativist policy adviser Stephen Miller. Celebrating the immigrant experience in the United States is suddenly all the rage in network situation comedies.
Three new sitcoms on CBS, NBC and TBS—along with ABC’s long-running Fresh Off the Boat, which launches its sixth season on Friday—stand as a pop-culture rebuke to White House messaging that generally demonizes immigrants, especially from Third World countries, as rapists, murderers, gang members, drug dealers, or simply leeches on citizen-taxpayers.
“During the 2016 election, we saw it coming—this horrible narrative from that guy [Trump] about ‘making America great again,’ and doing exactly the opposite while complaining [about foreign-born residents],” said Fresh Off the Boat executive producer Melvin Mar, a Los Angeles native whose parents emigrated from mainland China by way of Hong Kong and Taiwan. “It was disconcerting, but it made us feel like we needed to just keep making the show and keep putting that out there”—that is, a positive, if comedic, image of immigrants.
“Our show celebrates what it means to be American—that’s the total idea,” Mar told The Daily Beast, theorizing that the proliferation of sitcoms promoting a similar theme “is a reaction to the terrible rhetoric of this president and people also realizing, in the business, that there are different voices out there and those voices just haven’t been on television until now. I think it’s a hugely good thing. It’s a major sea-change.”
The other immigrant-friendly sitcoms are CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola, about a white sock manufacturer in Detroit (Billy Gardell) who falls in love with his Nigerian cardiac nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku); TBS’s Chad, chronicling the mishaps of a socially awkward Muslim-Persian teenage boy (played across genders by sitcom creator Nasim Pedrad, a former Saturday Night Live performer) braving a cliquish American high school; and NBC’s Kal Penn-created sitcom Sunnyside, about the challenges of a group of foreign-born residents of an ethnically diverse Queens, New York, neighborhood.
“Immigration has always been at the heart of America. Now it just happens to be such a focus because the word ‘immigrant’ has been vilified somehow,” said actor/comedian Samba Schutte of Sunnyside. A Dutch-Mauritanian who was born in the Sahara and grew up in Ethiopia, Schutte plays Hakim, an Ethiopian heart surgeon who moved from Africa to Queens and must drive a taxi while awaiting certification as a physician.
“What I hope this show will do, as well as the other shows, is put a human face to immigrants,” Schutte said. “We hope that people will let us into their homes every week and show that they are just people like you and me. My African grandfather said that there’s no difference between us—we all have nine holes in our bodies at the end of the day.”
In Thursday’s premiere episode of Sunnyside, a character played by Romanian-born actor Tudor Petrut gets hauled away by ICE agents—even though he holds a green card that allows him to live in the U.S. legally.
“We’re all very concerned and try to do something about it,” Schutte said about the episode’s storyline. In real life, he added, “there’s a whole community out there that’s terrified, even though some are legal and some have green cards. There are stories out there about people who have been taken, who are actually American citizens, and have been detained for a couple of days without being released.”
Indeed, just in June, immigration agents falsely arrested an 18-year-old, Texas-born American citizen named Francisco Erwin Galicia at a Border Patrol checkpoint and held him for 23 days, under inhumane conditions, in an immigrant detention facility; government officials tried to force the terrorized teenager into signing self-deportation papers before they grudgingly admitted their mistake and let him go.
“I’m here on a permanent-resident green card, but at the same time, you feel like, how safe am I on a green card? Anything can happen,” said Schutte, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past eight years and is married to comedian/producer Aria Bruss, a native Californian. In case he’s ever pulled over by the cops, “I don’t travel without my green card or my Dutch passport, just to show that I’m legal, have done everything in a legal way, and have a very clean record,” Schutte said. “You hope that the people you’re dealing with are wise enough to realize you’re just a human being.”
Prominent showrunner Chuck Lorre, best known for such TV hits as CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men (which involved an epic, tabloid-ready battle eight years ago with tiger-blood enthusiast Charlie Sheen), told The Daily Beast that he thought about creating a sitcom like Bob Hearts Abishola after vacationing in Africa.
“About a year and a half ago, we started knocking around this idea and we thought it was an opportunity not just to explore romantic comedy, but to explore the incredibly courageous experience that is moving to another country and starting over again. I wanted to do a show that honored people who risk everything to build a new life in a strange place. It’s extremely admirable, and very, very brave,” said Lorre, who joked that “I’m politically suffering” under the Trump presidency.
“They’re generally highly-focused, ambitious, determined, extraordinarily honest—everything that is great about this country,” Lorre said about his personal experience of immigrants, noting that his immigrant grandfather was a tailor who “sewed zippers into winter jackets for 50 years at a penny apiece; he just worked like a dog for half a century and then retired to Miami.”
Lorre, whose sitcom airs Monday nights, added: “Every wave of immigration that’s ever come to this country has had a strand of criminality—every single one of them. That’s just human nature. You take any group of people and two percent of them are going to be ‘yikes!’ No one culture can claim complete freedom from a couple of bad apples. But, by and large, I don’t think it’s a political statement to say that the greatness of this country is predicated on immigrants who came here and worked their asses off.”
WarnerMedia executive Brett Weitz, the general manager of both TNT and TBS, said Chad—which premieres on TBS early next year—is not meant as a pro-immigrant polemic, even though “the immigrant story will be a core focus as an entry point.”
“We’re just making shows that reflect the way America looks, and I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re making a show about an immigrant as we are making a show about a boy coming of age, with a 30-plus-year-old woman playing him. A young man coming of age in America who happens to be an immigrant,” Weitz told The Daily Beast.
Trump White House messaging aside, “we must tell stories about the world as we see it. We must tell stories about the United States as it looks,” Weitz said. “I’m sitting here in New York City, looking outside, and I’ve seen probably 30 different types of people walk by in seven seconds. If we don’t tell the stories about those people, we’ll become irrelevant and we’ll cease to exist.”
“Right now, more than ever, we need to connect to something that brings us joy. More than ever. Right now,” Weitz continued. “And if it makes you laugh, and if you’re Persian or Middle-Eastern and watching this young boy going through this, and you can connect to that, then I’ve done my job.”
Like Kal Penn, who was unavailable to The Daily Beast for an interview but insisted recently to The New York Times that Sunnyside has no political agenda, executive producer Matt Murray soft-pedals the sitcom’s obvious pro-immigration stance. Notwithstanding the central theme, Murray hopes that even Trump voters might enjoy tuning in.
“We’re certainly not trying to hit anybody over the head with any sort of political messaging,” he said. “I consider myself to be well on the left, and I would get tired of being preached to myself. Really we’re just trying to show a bunch of weird, colorful characters. It’s not going to be a show where in every episode we’re going to talk about how hard it is or what the political issues of the day are. We’re going to try to make a funny show about a bunch of friends.”
Murray added, however, that “people who are actively making the choice to try to live here can be seen as more patriotic, in some ways, because it took no effort for me, as a person who was born here, to go, like, ‘Yeah, America’s awesome, and I love it.’ But to leave family and home, and go through this process that takes years, that’s incredibly complicated—that takes a lot of work. I think we’re just trying to show that there’s another side to the issue, that there are multiple sides to the issue. People might think that immigration is just [foreigners] coming to this country and asking for handouts, and it’s really not that at all. It takes years. People are vetted forever.”