Master of None
“For many children of immigrants, myself included, this was the first time seeing our family dynamics authentically portrayed on screen.”
Title: Master of None
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Aziz Ansari 👨🏽🇺🇸 and Alan Yang 👨🏻🇺🇸
Directors: Aziz Ansari 👨🏽🇺🇸 (6 eps), Eric Wareheim 👨🏼🇺🇸 (6 eps), Alan Yang 👨🏻🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (1 ♂ and 2 ♀)
Writers: Aziz Ansari 👨🏽🇺🇸 (20 eps), Alan Yang 👨🏻🇺🇸 (20 eps), Zoe Jarman 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Sarah Peters 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and various (5 ♂ and 3 ♀ including POC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation fame and the show’s former writer Alan Yang perfectly blend comedy with social commentary in their brainchild Master of None on Netflix. What began as a fairly straightforward concept about an Indian American actor struggling to find work, love, and deal with his immigrant parents has since evolved into a complicated conversation about identity and relationships. While Season 1 relies on the Seinfeld-esque, observational jokes that seem requisite for any New York City-based sitcom, Season 2 experiments with episodes that push the boundaries of genre. Throughout, Ansari and Yang willingly engage their viewers on a wide variety of topics relevant but not only limited to the Asian-American experience—including issues of entitlement and masculinity. The result is a series that feels utterly contemporary and groundbreaking within the landscape of streaming television shows.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Although Master of None centers on Ansari’s protagonist Dev—who represents a familiar, wannabe-woke, straight dude—the series consistently strives to challenge that limited perspective. The episode “Ladies and Gentleman” in Season 1 stands out in particular for hitting the nail of misogyny on the head when highlighting the stark contrast between a woman’s late-night walk home alone, and the palpable threat underlying the situation, versus Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Dev’s carefree jaunt. Over brunch later, Denise (Lena Waithe) and Rachel (Noël Wells) school their male friends on the reality of dealing with creepy guys that women face on a daily basis. Controversy over outright sexual harassment comes to a head at the end of Season 2, which indirectly calls attention to Dev’s male privilege once more.
Dev’s friendship with Denise definitely helps anchor the show. In the second season, we also see Dev turning to another female friend, Tanvi (Lakshmi Sundaram), for dating advice. Although they’re supporting characters in Dev’s journey, I appreciate the depth that the writers and actors bring to the roles. We get the sense that they are real people with strong opinions and lives of their own.
Unfortunately, it’s an entirely different story when it comes to Dev’s romantic partners. In particular, Season 2’s Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) lacks any sense of self outside of her attachment to men. And though this is a flaw her character seems to acknowledge, the writing appears disinclined to make her more fully developed, perhaps so Dev can continuing pining after this idealized version of a pretty but otherwise flat love interest.
“Parents” remains the seminal episode of Season 1 for its spot-on depiction of not only the immigrant experience but also the conflicts between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Dev and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) compare their loving yet often perplexing relationships with their fathers and mothers, exacerbated by cultural and generational differences. For many first generation kids, myself included, this was the first time seeing our family dynamics authentically portrayed on screen.
Although the show largely keeps to an upper-middle-class slice of urban life (with “New York, I Love You” in Season 2 being a welcomed exception), the casting does succeed in showcasing a racially diverse cross-section of Dev’s personal and professional life. Where the series has been criticized (read here and here) again involves Dev’s dating life, namely his proclivity for pursuing white women. Interestingly, Dev is shown in “First Date” (Season 2, Episode 4) courting an array of women—both white and nonwhite, both comical and nuanced. But across both seasons, the women with whom he winds up falling in love, and who consequently receive the most screen time as objects of desire, are exclusively white. I won’t completely write off the series for its inability to cultivate more complex relationships with WOC, perhaps because I know plenty of Asian American men just like Dev. So in that respect, the character’s choices feel authentic. But I do hope that if Season 3 ever happens, the creative forces behind the show might be able to channel some kind of self-awareness into Dev’s growth and break this pattern of defaulting to white femininity.
Arguably the best of the series, “Thanksgiving” (Season 2, Episode 8), has less to do with Dev and, instead, shifts focus to Denise. Co-written by Ansari and Waithe, this wonderfully heartfelt and incisive story about a queer black woman’s coming-of-age and gradual coming out to her mother (Angela Bassett) presented in a series of Thanksgiving dinners over the years more than deserves its Emmy nomination. The episode also provides an entertaining glimpse into Denise and Dev’s friendship from childhood, through awkward adolescence, to adulthood.
Bonus for Disability: +0.25
Another memorable episode that strays from Dev’s point of view, “New York, I Love You” (Season 2, Episode 6) plays like a short film featuring the everyday lives of random New Yorkers. One of the vignettes follows a deaf black woman, and in a clever move, the audio drops out as soon as we enter her narrative. In the grand scheme of things, the inclusion of her storyline is a small gesture, but it does illustrate the show’s continued celebration of identities outside the mainstream.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.56/5
Master of None aims high, speaking to an audience already well-versed in the language of identity politics and microaggressions. Its imperfections may reflect the show creators’ own growing pains, but I think Ansari and Yang demonstrate a sincere effort toward normalizing inclusive representation that’s worth watching.