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Is Master of None the Most Socially Intelligent Comedy on TV Right Now?

by | November 24, 2015 | Comments

During the season finale of Master of None, Netflix’s new comedy from Aziz Ansari, Dev (Ansari) finds himself at a friend’s wedding with a date. It’s a perfect, sunny day at a fancy New York City location, with a waterfront view of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

As the couple enjoys their drinks and the sights, the father of the groom walks up to Dev and greets him by name. Then the man, Mr. Ryan, introduces himself to Dev’s date Rachel (Noel Wells).

Mr. Ryan then decides to open their slice of cocktail conversation with, “Aw, that’s nice. I love seeing ethnically mixed couples. You two are beautiful together.”

After that, he turns to Rachel – who happens to be white — ceasing to acknowledge Dev altogether. “Had you ever dated an ethnic man before this, Rachel?”

It’s exchanges like this that make Master of None possibly the most socially intelligent comedy series on TV right now. That’s because Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang don’t make a big deal out of these moments and others like them; they’re just part of what Dev and his friends encounter in daily life.

Master of None premiered in early November and has since received wide critical acclaim, particularly for two episodes: “Indians on TV,” in which Dev navigates a brutal audition process that exposes him to the racial barriers imposed within the entertainment industry; and “Parents,” which takes a poke at first-generation kids who underappreciate the struggles faced by their immigrant parents. (“Parents” also made minor celebrities out of Ansari’s father Shoukath and his mother Fatima, who stole the show as Dev’s dad and mom.)

But Netflix doesn’t promote Master of None as a show about what it means to be Indian in America, or about any kind of racial prejudice, because it isn’t. This bears pointing out, not just because racial tensions have once again hit a boiling point — something a broadcast network, NBC, attempted to capitalize on this season with its comedy Truth Be Told. That show is a standard network half-hour sitcom featuring two best friends – one white, and one black – who joke about race all the time. (And truth be told, its initial episode order has been cut from 13 to 10; the series currently is gasping for air on Friday nights.)

Ansari’s viewpoint in Master of None, in contrast, makes the challenges of cultural relations part of a broader conversation about the bounty of choices available to thirty-something urbanites. If Seinfeld, still considered to be a quintessential New York-based series, was a show about nothing that featured unlikable people, Master of None is a comedy of microaggressions, one that mirrors urban life as it truly is, with diverse cultures and socio-economic groups rubbing shoulders with one another and still failing to blend with ease.

Master of None also is intentionally diverse, an issue about which Ansari has been vocal while promoting the show, even in front of audiences as broad as that of CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Dev’s main clique consists of his friends Brian (Kelvin Yu), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Arnold (Eric Wareheim). Brian is Asian, while Denise is black and, we eventually discover, a lesbian. Arnold is a childlike, awkward white giant, creating a stark contrast with Ansari’s short, wiry Dev.

Dev’s friends look as if they’ve been hanging out for years. And in the same way that their individual relationships with Dev appear natural and genuine, the situations they deal with — and the microaggressions that come out of them — feel equally realistic.

Dev’s exchange with the well-meaning if casually bigoted father of the groom was a brief scene in an episode that examined the meaning of commitment.  Yet to stand back and think about this moment and others Dev faces in aggregate, these tiny doses of ignorance speak volumes about where we are as a culture. In that conversation, a man Dev obviously knows reduces him to a category, “an ethnic.” He’s no longer his son’s friend, but an exotic spice that the nice white girl decided to sprinkle into her life.

“I think his heart’s in the right place,” Dev remarks after Mr. Ryan walks away, “but he really shouldn’t be saying ‘ethnic’ that much.”

So, as one character put it…there’s a thing.

The beauty of Ansari and Yang’s approach is that it demonstrate that these small slights, intentional or otherwise, are part of human nature. Everybody gets to be a target, and even Dev finds himself as the aggressor, or an accessory, at various points during the season.

The episode that best demonstrates this, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” isn’t about racism, but the covert sexism and dangerous objectification women have to deal with on a regular basis. Rachel becomes angry at Dev when he refuses to acknowledge that a guy intentionally ignored her and Denise as he stopped to shake the hands of the men around them.

“Seems like you might be reading a bit much into it,” Dev tells her.

“We’re telling you that this is something that definitely happens to women, all the time,” Rachel retorts, “but, fine. Deny our perception of the world.”

A subsequent observation drives home the message of witnessing all of these small snubs and how they affect Dev and others: “There are a lot of subtle little things that happen to me, and all women, even in our little progressive world. And when somebody, especially my boyfriend, tells me that I’m wrong without having any way of knowing my personal experience, it’s insulting.”

Thankfully, Master of None also shows us that every offender can learn from his or her mistakes. Upon meeting Rachel’s grandmother for the first time, Dev admits he was afraid that she’d be prejudiced about him at first sight, to which she replies with a smile, “Oh, I see. You assumed I was a racist just because I’m old! That’s nice.”

Again, this is a blip in a larger story about Dev and Rachel’s grandma. The pair go on to have a wild time hanging out together, telling each other stories about their lives, and eventually indulging in one of Dev’s favorite pastimes: eating pasta.

Life is full of barbs, and all of us toss in our share of sharpness in one way or another. But as Master of None proves, sometimes the best that we can do is acknowledge these stumbles and keep moving along to get to the good stuff.

Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

 

  • Watched the pilot and was not impressed at all. I didn’t laugh (or even smile) once. This is one VERY over-rated program.

    • PUNFUCIUS

      Watching the pilot and judging a program is like making out with someone and assuming how they are in relationships
      You can do it, but it’s not an accurate portrayal
      It gets much better…

      • I’ve been told the same. I’ll watch a few more episodes and hope for the best.

      • Marcello Abbatangelo

        or much, much worse. in fact the odds are in favor that it will only get worse

    • Mario

      Yeah, it’s so overrated. I watched the first 5 episodes and only laughed a few times. It seems like they tried so hard to replicate Louie and it feels like a clunky, unfunny knock off.

      • Oh no, this thing doesn’t even come close to Louie’s clever subtlety.

    • ralphlaw

      Yes, I honestly don’t get this show, or “Jessica Jones”. Found “River” entertaining though.

    • Ocuyo

      Its a story as old as, well, the invention of stories. The internet, like it usually does, went crazy for this show, and spewed some generous, hyperbolic, and completely undeserved hype that no show can ever live up to. And you fell for it. I was lucky enough to watch it early on, with only one review as a reference. And, I think, its a great show.

  • Brian

    One of my fav shows of the year. Very much a modern comedy but brings in many influences – from art house flicks to stoner comedy to Girls, Woody Allen and the better rom-coms.

  • ralphlaw

    Not only is it not funny, it’s ironic that the show’s White and Black characters were all stereotypes. The very thing this ‘socially intelligent’ comedy is suppose to be standing against.

    As the star complains about being forced an ‘Indian Accent’ black characters spot potty-mouthed ebonics rather than anything that resembles standard english. And the White characters are also caricatures.

    • bradbrad

      Huh? Have seen every episode multiple times and have yet to encounter “ebonics.” Black characters might “sound black” due to their manner of speech but it’s not like they’re saying n*gga this, n*gga that etc. If you have trouble understanding them it honestly sounds like a personal problem lol. Characters of ALL races on this show are potty-mouthed. Would love to hear more about those so-called white caricatures though.

    • ricson

      It’s not supposed to be “standing against” anything. It’s supposed to be a portrayal of. Which I think based on these stereotypes, is.

  • Brewster

    Nothing would make me watch this. NOTHING. Netflix is wasting my money and their time with this.

    • Johnny

      yet here you are..commenting on a review of the show…

  • Really enjoyed it. It’s much better than Ansari’s stand up and deals with so many issues people in their late 20s and early 30s can relate to. This reminds me of Seinfeld, Curb, and Louie but for a younger more inclusive generation. Also the music in this is unbelievable, especially if you are from that afforementioned demographic.

  • NORMAN DOSTAL

    hes not that funny-its one of those “like this comedian because he was on a tv show” guys-not much here…

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