‘Master of None’ Season 1 (Netflix): Aziz Ansari Does Diversity Right

Master of None on Netflix, 11/06/15

Netflix’s latest venture into original television takes the from of Master of None, a New York-set comedy on the travails of growing up. It’s a tired trope freshened by leading man and co-creator Aziz Ansari, but it makes its mark with its smart take on millennial culture, in our technological dependency and this age of social discourse.

Master of None is helmed by Parks and Recreation alumni Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari. Aziz plays Dev Shah, an actor attempting to break into film whose resume is mostly commercials. The supporting cast varies from episode to episode, usually made of his friends and coworkers: Kelvin Yu as Brian, Lena Waithe as Denise, Eric Wareheim as Arnold, and Dev’s more experienced costar on the film he hopes will launch his career, Benjamin, played by H. Jon Benjamin of Archer and Bob’s Burgers fame. Dev’s romantic interest, Rachel, is played by SNL alum Noel Wells.

Master of None‘s promising 10-episode first season follows a strange pattern that balances romantic comedy with more “everyman” elements, while never prioritizing one over the other. The premiere, “Plan B”, blends the two perfectly: Rachel is slyly introduced in a one-night stand barely saved from going awry, and Dev spends the episode contemplating marriage, children, and what the future holds. The episode lineup seamlessly alternates between slick social commentary and Dev and Rachel’s romantic arc with natural overlap. Blatant discussions of race & gender politics and modern etiquette headline the episodes “Indians on TV” and “Ladies and Gentlemen”. “Nashville” and “Mornings” are pure romance, while “Old People”, “Hot Ticket”, and “Ladies and Gentlemen” incorporate both.

But above all, Master of None stands apart for its fearless diversity. “Fearless” to differentiate from unnaturally diverse groups of women in yogurt commercials, from models on SAT prep info packets. In token diversity, action is stilted, infected by the truth of every person’s presence: that they’re there to fill a quota. Like Aziz Ansari, Dev is a second generation Indian-American immigrant from South Carolina. His friend Denise is a black lesbian, like Lena Waithe, and Brian is Taiwanese-American, like Kelvin Yu. The only white friend in their circle is Arnold. Unlike in tokenism, these friends are unashamed about and open to discussing their experiences and, more importantly, learning from each other. Not to say every one of their nights out at bars has the same dynamic as a campus support group, though those are great, too. It can be as candid as the pilot’s condom conversation, when Dev asks Arnold “Did you ever have a condom break?” and naturally turns to Denise with, “So, Denise, for lesbians, is there like, no protection?” It’s not meant in any derogatory way; he’s genuinely curious. In a conversation on safe sex, Denise’s viewpoint is just as valuable.

Master of None addresses these current, serious topics with humor and sensitivity not seen in much of comedy. For example, in episode 7, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, Dev becomes aware of the difference between his life and the lives of women around him: Denise, Rachel, and Dev’s costar in a commercial, Diana (Condola Rashad). This episode in particular has a very to-the-point opener, wherein Dev and Arnold walk home from the same bar as Diana. Dev steps in dog feces and his night is ruined; Diana calls the cops on a man from the bar who followed her home. The sequence switches between their two journeys, and the real fear and paranoia on Diana’s side of things makes Dev’s overreaction infuriating. Aziz Ansari freely identifies as a feminist, and this episode follows Dev’s education on the topic. Arnold already identifies as feminist, and his spelling out the definition could well be the first time that many people hear it: “A feminist is a person that thinks men and women should be treated equally. And I fully support that. So, my good sir, I’m a feminist.”

Crossing demographics and power structures isn’t where it ends. The second episode, “Parents”, in which Dev and Brian make efforts to get to know their immigrant parents and appreciate their sacrifices, had me sobbing. Aziz Ansari has long been one of my favorite comedians since his Madison Square Garden comedy special which had this gem: “My life is super easy ’cause you did all the struggling.” This episode is about connection. Brian and Dev identify in each other similar experiences of second generation immigrant guilt, and their clumsy attempt to go out to dinner with their parents yields some powerful identification between these older strangers, in their seemingly disparate experiences as Indian and Taiwanese immigrants.

As seen in episode 7, Master of None juxtaposes privilege with disadvantage. Dev and Brian’s daily struggles, like seeing disappointing X-Men movies, are intercut with truly harrowing flashbacks of how their parents fought to come here and give them a life where they have enough time and money to see disappointing X-Men movies. Beyond the ‘gratitude for their suffering’ angle, this episode humanizes immigrant parents beyond romantic simplification. Brian reconciles his father’s journey with “My dad used to bathe in a river, and now he drives a car that talks to him.” Their dads are introduced as dotty middle-aged men with funny old people problems and interests, like malfunctioning iPads and reading The Economist. It’s how Dev and Brian know them daily, and it’s as much a part of their identities as any Oscar bait ethnic suffering movie they lived in intervening years.

My parents are both Filipino immigrants, who came separately from different parts of the Philippines and met in New York in the 90s. The experiences of Dev’s parents and Brian’s dad are so familiar to me. Aziz Ansari’s parents play Dev’s parents, and I recognized his mother’s account of her first day in America from his Madison Square Garden show: “I was scared to answer the telephone because nobody would understand me because of my accent.” Brian’s father, in a rare display of emotion, says “I was scared of answering the phone, too. They yell so much. ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ I just got to this country. Why are they so mad?” Dev’s mother complains that he never shows her the products of his photography hobby. I’ve been avoiding telling my mom when to stream my radio show. Brian’s father had to kill his pet chicken because his family was running out of food. I swear I’m not making this up, but my grandfather killed my dad’s pet chicken and served it to him. My dad doesn’t eat chicken to this day. Watching this episode, I cried ugly, dry heaving sobs. I barely call my parents every two weeks, but I’ve called home three times in the past day since this show went live on Netflix.

Diversity is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people, but Master of None makes it anything but. Unlike Louie with the oft “everyman”-marketed Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari as Dev and his crew of realistically diverse friends are everymen for this generation. The “everyman” experience is no longer the dating struggles of an average-looking white guy. Everymen are gay. Everymen are lesbians. Everymen are black and Asian, and immigrants and the children of immigrants. Everymen are women. Master of None belongs to the millennial generation not only because of its currency, not only because we do invest 45 minutes research into finding the best taco in our vicinity (episode 10’s cold open), but because our identities are more valuable and more respected than ever, especially in intersections. Master of None is sweet without being twee, funny without being mean, and it’s paving way for our visibility like television was always meant to.

Master of None Season 1 (Netflix 11/06/15):

  1. Plan B
  2. Parents
  3. Hot Ticket
  4. Indians on TV
  5. The Other Man
  6. Nashville
  7. Ladies and Gentlemen
  8. Old People
  9. Mornings
  10. Finale