Immigrants have been a part of American history for centuries, with multiple generations of people coming to the United States from all over the world to create new lives for themselves and their families.
And their stories, no matter how varied, are just as American as those of any native-born citizen.
Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily glean as much from the way immigrants have often been portrayed in pop culture: as one-note delivery vehicles for comic relief. Only recently have we started to see an increase in stories that treat immigrant characters as thinking, feeling humans, rather than walking stereotypes with thick accents whose primary purpose is to be the butt of a joke.
Television, finally, is helping to lead this charge. Some of the most compelling, acclaimed new shows of the past three years center on intergenerational immigrant families, illustrating not only the importance of representation in pop culture, but proving to networks that embracing immigrants as three-dimensional people can pay off.
Here are five excellent TV shows about immigrants, all of which are currently airing or streaming new episodes and absolutely worth your time.
This 2017 update of Norman Lear’s 1975 sitcom chronicles the lives of the Cuban-American Alvarez family, as anchored by the fantastic Justina Machado. Machado’s Penelope is an Army veteran and newly single mother of two, and the show treats every part of her life with utmost respect — including her heritage, which it traces though her dramatic mother Lydia (Rita Moreno), who immigrated to Los Angeles from Cuba in the ’60s.
It’s endlessly warm and thoughtful, especially when dealing with weightier issues like PTSD, coming out, and the heartbreaking reality of how deportation can affect families. But the show is at its best when exploring the complicated, steadfast relationship between Lydia, Penelope, and her daughter Elena: three generations of Cuban-American women living their lives, one day a time.
The first season of One Day at a Time is currently streaming on Netflix.
Fresh Off the Boat started out as an adaptation of chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, but the ABC comedy has since settled into its own groove that revolves around the Huang family’s life in 1990s Orlando. Three generations are represented, between the grandmother who only speaks Mandarin, the parents who brought her with them when they immigrated to the United States, and their three children who were born in Washington, DC.
Fresh Off the Boat’s first two seasons dealt with issues of identity and alienation in an otherwise white suburbia, while season three has more thoroughly explored issues directly related to American citizenship, like the right to vote and the responsibilities that come with jury duty. That may not sound especially fun on paper, but Fresh Off the Boat is always entertaining; not only does it feature some of the best ’90s jokes out there, but Constance Wu as matriarch Jessica Huang is a treasure.)
New episodes of Fresh Off the Boat season three air Tuesdays at 9 pm on ABC. Previous episodes of season three are available to stream on Hulu and ABC.com. Seasons one and two are available for digital download at Amazon and iTunes.
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None is about all the weird tangles that come with being on the cusp of 30 with only a tenuous idea of what’s ahead. But because the show is rooted in Ansari and Yang’s personal life experiences, the Netflix original comedy is also about what it means to be a second-generation immigrant in the United States.
In one episode (“Indians on TV”), we see exactly how hard it is for Ansari’s actor character Dev to fight for nonstereotypical roles in the face of preexisting judgments within the entertainment industry. In another standout — “Parents,” which won Ansari and Yang an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series — Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) ask their fathers what it was like to immigrate from India and Taiwan to the US, prompting sharp flashbacks to their respective childhoods and difficult transitions to a new country. (Bonus: Dev’s father is played by Ansari’s father, Shoukath.) Even if you don’t have time to marathon the 10-episode season, “Parents” is well worth a look on its own.
The first season of Master of None is streaming on Netflix.
One of television’s most earnest shows is also one of its best at telling inter-generational stories with humor and a whole lot of heart. No matter how chaotic the Villanueva family’s lives get — and Jane the Virgin’s love of telenovela tropes means their lives are very prone to chaos — their love and loyalty to each other is a true constant.
This is another show that features three generations of immigrants. While Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) were born in the United States, Jane’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) immigrated from Venezuela — and lived undocumented for years. Jane is never afraid to confront the realities of that situation head on, especially when depicting Alba’s hopes and fears around the process of becoming a citizen.
New episodes of Jane the Virgin season three air Mondays at 9 pm on The CW. Previous episodes of season three are available to stream on The CW’s website, and seasons one and two are available to stream on Netflix.
Yes, much of Amazon’s Transparent is limited to the tight knit — and sometimes even suffocating — circle of the Pfefferman family’s life in Los Angeles as trans woman Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) tries to get her bearings after coming out to her adult kids. But in its second and third seasons, the show expanded its scope to include poignant flashbacks to the Jewish family’s complicated, tragic past.
Throughout season two, we learn the story of Maura’s mother Rose (Emily Robinson) and Rose’s sister Gittel (Hari Nef), the trans aunt Maura never knew she had. We see Rose and Gittel living their best lives in Berlin’s underground art scene — until the Nazis round up Gittel and Rose flees with their mother to California. In season three, we see how the resulting grief has permeated Rose’s life, unbeknownst to her children, who are American born and bred. These flashbacks are some of the best and most heartbreaking material Transparent has to offer, not least because they provide such wrenching, necessary context for the historical blows often dealt to anyone existing outside of societal norms.
The first three seasons of Transparent are streaming on Amazon.