*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, May 23, 2017.*
Master of None promotes a vision of America that is enriched by the complexities of its immigrant communities, instead of persistent racist narratives.
In Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Dev Shah is an aspiring actor living in New York City. He’s cute, charming, and a gourmand obsessed with pasta. His love life is equal parts adorable and painful. Oh, and he’s also an American of Indian origin, a fact that shapes how Dev moves through the world, but only becomes a big deal when we look at the serious lack of diversity in television today.
Like the Wachowski Sisters’ Sense8, the diversity in Master of None is thoughtfully presented as a natural matter of course of life in NYC. Dev’s best friends are a white dude (Eric Wareheim), a black lesbian (Lena Waithe), and a first gen Chinese-American man (Kelvin Yu). He and his Desi actor buddy, Ravi (Ravi Patel) commiserate over their stereotyped casting calls and auditions. Dev dates women of all ethnicities and types, and through his relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells) becomes a feminist ally — basically, he’s a freaking unicorn. A brown dude as not just a lead of his own show, but a romantic lead at that, is groundbreaking for the South Asian American community.
Master of None just aired its marvelous second season on Netflix and it is some serious balm for the troubled soul, in many ways especially because of how compassionately it tackles the issues of being an immigrant in the United States. Like the actor portraying him, Dev Shah is a first generation immigrant who has only known life in the USA, unlike his parents who came over from India with great difficulty. While every immigrant family has a unique story, Master of None thoughtfully shows the threads that bind these disparate life experiences.
The semi-autobiographical show written, produced, and sometimes even directed by Ansari peels back the veil on not just Desi immigrant families, but a whole host of other immigrant groups who are living and working in the United States. Presenting the immigrant experience within this kind of empathetic comedic framework — especially in the current political climate of white nationalism — goes a long way towards demystifying all these different groups who have made the U.S. their home.
Master of None is such a beautiful love letter to the diversity that has become second nature to New York City. I’m not a fan of The Big Apple by any means, it’s too crowded and frenetic and expensive, but seeing the city through Dev’s eyes and the experiences of those he features, gave me pangs to reconsider.
Master of None’s second season bravely tackles the issue of being Muslim in America, and all the different shades that can entail. Dev Shah’s family are secular, their Muslim-ness defined mainly by going to Mosque infrequently and not eating pork. His mother (played adorably by Ansari’s actual mum Fatima) doesn’t wear a head covering of any kind, and his father (also played by Aziz’s wonderful actual dad Shoukath) only performs piety when more religious relatives come to town. Dev himself only identifies as Muslim since that is how he was raised, in the same way that many Christians and Jews live non-religious lives while still identifying with the religion as a matter of modern course. Dev also has a borderline fetish for pork, and the episode in which he “comes out” to his family as a pork eater is equal parts hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking. His mother takes it as a personal insult that her son would disrespect her in this way, eating pork in front of her, and it’s really the only time we see any kind of rift between Dev and his sweet and supportive parents. Seriously, I want them to adopt me.
Master of None is beautifully written and tackles stereotypes in a remarkable way: The only time stereotypes are used as talking or laughing points is in order to deconstruct the underlying racist or prejudiced assumptions that led to the stereotype in the first place. It is absolutely brilliant. I tend to stay away from many comedy shows because of their cheap reliance on racist, sexist, homophobic, and all other kinds of jokes that rely on tearing people down in order to reinforce white supremacist power structures. I haven’t laughed so hard and so long at a comedy show in years because Master of None features absolutely none of that offensive bullshit. This is just another example of the many reasons why we need more diversity both on screen and behind the camera, whether it’s as directors, producers, or writers.
The Thanksgiving episode in which Dev’s childhood friend Denise (Lena Waithe) comes out to her family and starts bringing girlfriends home is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Taking place over the course of decades and Denise’s sexual development, we get to watch her initially homophobic family accept her sexuality as well as her partners. At least, the smart partners. Denise’s mom, played by actual goddess Angela Bassett, ain’t got no time for dumdums who call her daughter DD. This was the only episode of the 20 in Master of None where my tears were absolutely not from laughter — it was beautiful, thought provoking and exquisitely human.
Another of Master of None’s greatest accomplishments is how it presents such a nuanced and multifaceted view of a variety of immigrant experiences in the United States. There isn’t just one way to be an immigrant here, and each person forges their own path either with or without their family, building a community over time. It also got me to thinking that, quite simply, there isn’t just one way to be an American at all. Homogeneity in this country has always been a myth, even though the theory of it is often promoted throughout both fiction and non-fiction media, visual or otherwise.
The lens of the modern immigrant experience presented in Master of None reminds us that unless you’re Native or were brought over here as slaves, the America as we know it is an actual nation of immigrants. Immigrants are of all colors, and the majority of them in this country have historically been white. Right-wing racist pundits like to pretend that the only immigrants in this country are people of color in order to criminalize their presence here, wholly overlooking that at different point in America’s history people like Irish, Italians, and Jews were not in fact even considered white.
More and more it’s been occurring to me that we don’t just need more diversity in the visual medias, we also need to cultivate more empathy. And Master of None goes a long way towards normalizing not just Indian Americans in the mainstream, but also showing the Muslim American community in a humane light that is in direct contradiction to the racist propaganda that’s been spewing since after September 11th. Master of None promotes a vision of America that is enriched by the complexities of its immigrant communities, instead of persistent racist narratives.