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