The scene is a nailbiter.
It’s two hours before Luis has to deliver his toddler son, Noah, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be deported. He’ll reunite his son with the boy’s mom, Kenia. She’s Luis’ girlfriend, and she’s six months pregnant. But like his young family, Luis is also undocumented. If he steps into the ICE handoff facility to see her for the last time, he may be arrested and deported as well.
On the verge of losing his childhood sweetheart, his son and his unborn baby, he decides the risk is worth it. And by the close of the first episode, viewers are left hanging, with one of the year’s most intense TV cliffhangers.
Unlike “Succession,” the umpteenth drama about a depraved rich white family behaving badly, there has been little social media buzz about the dirty politics and harrowing situations chronicled in Netflix’s six-part docuseries “Living Undocumented” since it premiered earlier this month.
“Living Undocumented,” from executive producers Selena Gomez, Aaron Saidman and Eli Holzman, relates the stories of eight families ripped apart by President Trump’s hard-line stance against undocumented immigrants. It’s suspenseful, full of conflict and heartbreak — but it appears audiences aren’t as willing to watch when the drama is real and the people in question would likely be dismissed as “the help” in Logan Roy’s world.
It’s one of several excellent documentaries, each focused on the fraught subject of immigration, buried under the deluge of waytoo much TV.
“The Feeling of Being Watched,” a feature-length film that premiered Monday as part of PBS’ long-running documentary showcase “POV,” portrays the FBI surveillance of a Muslim immigrant community in the Chicago suburbs. Journalist Assia Boundaoui, who grew up in the town, digs into the FBI’s Operation Vulgar Betrayal (yes, you read that right) after 9/11. She gives voice to those watched in their mosques, businesses, even at home. Says one hijab-clad woman of the car following her: “It’s like in the movies, where those pizza vans are just sitting, staked out in front of your house.”
Also upcoming from PBS is the Frontline documentary “Zero Tolerance” (Oct. 22), billed as “an investigation into how Donald Trump made opposition to immigration the signature policy of his presidency and used anti-immigration fervor to animate his supporters and fuel a political movement.”
And HBO’s “Liberty: Mother of Exiles,” which debuted Thursday night, explores the history of the Statue of Liberty, a beacon of hope for, well, it’s written right at her feet: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. In telling her story, the film also tells the story of how the United States was built on waves of migrants, and that story doesn’t end with archival photos of Irish and Italians being processed at Ellis Island.
The influx of Central American families — not just single men — seeking refuge has surged, despite the current administration‘s attempt to use its draconian policies as a deterrent. The result of the state-sanctioned separation of children from their parents is footage of a humanitarian crisis most Americans never thought they’d witness, stories of atrocities they’d never thought they’d hear: Crying toddlers in make-shift detention centers begging for their parents. Kids locked in cages. And, in the worst cases, children dying in custody. But the news has pivoted, like it always does, to another crisis, despite the ongoing crisis at the border.
Each production looks at the increasingly narrow path to citizenship from different perspectives, whether in real time, through the lens of history or via an investigative exposé. All demolish the idea of these recent arrivals as the Other. Their stories as individuals seeking a better life, and as groups fleeing poverty and violence in parts of Central America, the Middle East and Africa, are human and relatable.
Scripted television has also begun to tackle immigrant stories from a more compassionate perspective, moving beyond tropes that position Mexicans, Chinese, Indians and others as the punchline, if not an open threat. Immigrants now write and/or star in their own comedies, from “Fresh Off the Boat” to “One Day at a Time” to “Master of None” to “Ramy.” Dramas such as HBO’s gripping “The Night Of” and Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” have also delved into the communities behind the headlines, in addition to dealing with xenophobia in the justice system.
It’s still an experiment, of course, like the winnowing segment of TV that’s not made up of remakes of popular TV series from the 1980s or 1990s.
Just this week, NBC replaced freshman series “Sunnyside” with “Will & Grace” on its fall schedule, avoiding the bad press of an outright cancellation by making the remaining episodes available online. It stars Kal Penn as a former New York City councilman hired by a group of immigrants in Queens to help them navigate their quest for citizenship. (“Sunnyside” is being shopped to streaming outlets, according to Penn.) And, as Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg points out, for every attempt at a warm-hearted take on the immigrant experience (CBS’ ”Bob Hearts Abishola”), there’s a quiver of lazy procedural subplots about ICE.
Which means it’s been largely left to documentaries — traditionally one of the most under-appreciated, under-covered and under-watched genres on television, save for the occasional true-crime humdinger — to pick up the slack. But are we paying enough attention?
The answer is no, partly because it’s so hard to cut through the chaos. The past three years have been a whiplash of actions and reactions: Immigrants have been demonized and championed, banned and welcomed, locked up and given refuge. And unscripted TV, faster and more agile than its scripted counterpart, offers an essential document of the ever-changing landscape.
In fact, the rapidly paced “Living Undocumented” is so up to date — and down on the ground — it almost feels like a live stream. It was shot in 2018 and follows mothers, fathers and their children as they try to navigate the rapidly changing rules of legal immigration.
The endings of most of these stories in the age of ICE raids and zero tolerance aren’t happy ones, of course. And that’s if they actually come to a close. The deported will face the beginning of a new saga back home. Those still hiding out, whether in Los Angeles or a suburb in Florida, continue to live in fear.
Luis, who immigrated from Honduras to the U.S. in 2012, made enough as a construction worker to finally bring his family here. We are with him when they’re about to be ripped apart. In one scene before he hands off Noah to ICE to be reunited with his mother — and then deported — he puts the young boy on the phone with Kenia.
Tell your mom you love her, he says to the squirming youngster in Spanish. The boy plays with his Spider-Man sunglasses and talks in non-sequiturs, like little kids do. Finally he pays attention. “Te amo, mommy,” he says through the phone.
She sobs. And so will you.