Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, has a certain, unflattering reputation.
West Virginia native Afsheen Misaghi laughed and listed what he’d heard.
“We’re white. We’re backward. We’re poor. We’re small-minded,” the 25-year-old said over the phone.
The Fulbright scholar and filmmaker is none of those things. His family is from Turkey, India and Iran. He was born in Lewisburg but grew up in Charleston and lightly refers to himself as a mountain man and a hillbilly.
“It’s who I am,” he said.
His family has a deep connection to the land and people here and Misaghi said West Virginians are getting a bad rap.
“The West Virginia I know has its problems, but it’s very genuine, very loving and a diverse place,” he said.
West Virginia is also more like the rest of America than not, which is part of the message in “Normal for Now,” a four-episode streaming series currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime.
Through these short stories, Misaghi and his co-producer, Nate Cesco, present a series of dramatic snapshots about life during the COVID-19 pandemic for a diverse cast of people living in Appalachia. The stories touch on familiar themes of isolation, loneliness and anxiety, but there’s humor and even a sense of perseverance in the stories.
“We wanted to do something beyond the superficial things of the pandemic, like the whipped coffee and all the TikTok videos,” he said. “We wanted to do stories like what happens after the Zoom happy hour call? That’s where the real challenges of the pandemic happen.”
Misaghi and Cesco wrote the four shows in late summer, assembled a crew of five and then put together a cast of about 20 actors to shoot the episodes.
“I would say we had a small, but incredible talented group of people working with us,” he said.
They worked fast and incorporated things like Zoom, which helped them tell their stories as well as maintain a COVID-safe working environment for their cast and crew.
They made less than ideal circumstances work for them and turned it into an opportunity to document a place and time while creating art.
Besides, if not for the coronavirus pandemic, Misaghi probably wouldn’t be in West Virginia.
An actor with a degree from West Virginia University and a masters of fine arts in theater acting from the University of Florida, the George Washington High School graduate and Fulbright scholar had been in Turkey teaching English at Ankara Yildirium Beyazit University.
It was a nine-month posting that should have lasted until June of 2020, but then COVID-19 swept across the world.
In March, Misaghi was abruptly told his scholarship program was finished. They were sending him back to the U.S.
“Country roads take me home,” he joked.
After he returned to West Virginia, he connected with Cesco and the two began writing together. They worked on several projects together over the summer before deciding to put together the series that landed on Amazon.
“To be completely clear, this is not an Amazon show,” Misaghi said. “Amazon did not pay to make this show and we didn’t get paid or anything. We made this show, but Amazon is our platform.”
Still, Amazon is picky about what they take. The media giant has strict rules regarding content and production values.
“It comes down to using a particular kind of camera and having the right kind of text in your video,” he said. “We did everything through Nate’s Lateland Media.”
The show is almost an entirely homegrown product. It was recorded in Cabell County. Most of the cast and crew are from West Virginia or live here and the show features several West Virginia musicians including Hello June, Shelem and Brad Goodall.
While its production values are pretty high, “Normal for Now” has an independent cinema aesthetic. There are frank depictions of drug and alcohol use (bordering on abuse) and some language, but Misaghi said they wanted something relatable.
The filmmaker said they believe people outside of Appalachia will see it as relatable, too.
“At this point, all we’re trying to do with ‘Normal for Now’ is get it seen by as many people as we can,” he said.
“Normal for Now” is currently available on Amazon Prime, which makes it free to view to Amazon Prime subscribers.
With the four episodes of the show finished, he said he and Cesco were working on other projects, including a late-night talk show called “15 Minutes Late,” recorded at Rock City Cake Company in Charleston over the holidays.
He said the show would be similar to “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO, with deep dives into issues like race representation in the media and Appalachia.
Misaghi said he believes the show will be available for viewing by the end of the month.