By Joyce Chen
This is how the conversation usually begins:
“Hey, I’ve been watching this awesome new Netflix show, Master of None. Heard of it?”
“Oh yeah, I think my coworker mentioned it the other day. What’s it about again?”
“You know, it’s that one show…”
… and what comes next is the clincher, because there are a number of ways fans are choosing to describe Aziz Ansari’s new auteurist comedy series. Buzzy terms like “millennial,” “Woody Allen-esque,” and “zeitgeist” are often tossed around, but very rarely are these exchanges furthered without at least a slight nod to the fact that Ansari’s comedy-drama series is helmed by, you know, “that one Indian guy.”
The fact that this very vague descriptor alone is usually enough to spark a look of recognition in the hypothetical second person’s eyes is telling. Not because this hypothetical second person is racist (“Oh right, because the one with that one Indian chick is The Mindy Project, right?”), but because it highlights something most minorities have known forever, but that the mainstream is only just now getting clued in on: Minorities still don’t get much screen time.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the kind of screen time that would actually be reflective of their existence in today’s society — as three-dimensional, multi-faceted human beings.
Playing the side-kick who delivers punchy one-liners or the charming store owner who yells at the neighborhood kids is screen time, sure, but those parts can hardly be considered “making it.” Even the most dedicated TV viewers would be hard-pressed to name at least five major shows in the past 10 years that have starred a minority lead (or two!).
Give it a moment.
Also, remember that the year is 2015.
And yes, Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead is kind of a cop-out answer. He’s not exactly leading the charge chasing down zombies, a la Andrew Lincoln.
And yes, there have been shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat that are making this slow shift more palatable to folks who are unaccustomed to seeing minorities in lead roles, but since both of these series center around culture and race themselves, they can sometimes create divides rather than dialogues.
Because part of the trick, of course, is to not get too heavy-handed with any of the more serious discussions of race that serve as the undercurrent for these series, while still allowing elements of culture and ethnicity to shine through where they’re meant to. (Read: going the opposite direction, i.e. “white-washing” a character whose back story or life circumstances clearly point toward cultural plot points is equally alienating.)
Enter Ansari and Master of None, the second major minority-led sitcom in recent years to garner mainstream attention (the first, of course, being Mindy Kaling’s highly popular The Mindy Project.) The show revolves around Ansari’s character, Dev, a thirty-something in New York City who’s struggling with the ins and outs of being a fully functioning adult in a tech-and-choice-driven age. He and his squad, Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Denise (Lena Waithe) and Brian (Kelvin Yu), are self-professed misfits who meet up to talk about dating, marriage, babies, and, well, a whole lot of nothing.
Sounds like the premise for plenty of other hit shows: Friends, Seinfeld, Louis, or hell, even Girls.
Oh, except that Dev happens to be a first-generation Indian-American.
And since this is the case, Ansari faces a plight of a different kind: How does one tell a relatable narrative with a minority character in the lead role whilst shouldering two major weights — the burden of representation and the demands of an industry that still sees white actors as the “everyman”?
It’s a hard balance to strike, because going too far into the realm of a cultural comedy can leave some audiences feeling left out, while catering to tropes the mainstream is accustomed to only further perpetuates stereotypes. Portraying an experience that involves straddling two different cultures is, in other words, a hell of a lot of work.
But leave it to Ansari to approach the challenge with swag and subtlety.
Rather than skirt around the issue, the comedian tackles it head-on in the fourth episode of the season, titled “Indians on TV.” In the episode, Ansari’s character Dev finds himself at an audition for a role as an unnamed cab driver that requires him to “do an Indian accent,” much to his chagrin.
While he adamantly refuses to acquiesce (in a proud moment for minorities everywhere, uncomfortable though it may have been to watch), his actor buddy Ravi gamely plays along and lays on a thick accent for his audition. When the two grab coffee afterward, Ansari schools Ravi in the reasons why he shouldn’t be such an easy pawn for the industry.
“Look, I get it,” he says. “There probably is a Pradeep who runs a convenience store, and I have nothing against him, but why can’t there be a Pradeep just once, who’s like, an architect, or he designs mittens or does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies?”
In a later conversation, Dev points out that Indians aren’t yet at the level where there can be more than one Indian actor in a sitcom — lest it be marketed as an “Indian sitcom.”
“Black people just got to the ‘there can be two’ status, you know?” he tells Ravi. “Even then, though, there can’t be three.”
In other words, there’s still a long way to go before what we see on TV actually reflects what our demographic makeup looks like in real life. (A report from the Census Bureau earlier this year projected that minorities will be the majority in America by 2020.)
It’s a point that sits as a no-brainer to minorities who are, indeed, tired of the stereotypes in Hollywood — convenience store owners, cab drivers, delivery guys, nail salon employees, often with incomprehensible accents — but what Master of None does is refreshing because it’s also a point that has never been addressed in such a direct way, and to such a wide audience. And, perhaps just as importantly, in such a non-confrontational way.
The thing is, the conversation Dev and Ravi have on the show is less “us versus them” than it is an acknowledgement that the issues they face are just one part of a more complex societal problem. Case in point: Ravi tries to reason that he has to play into the system’s stereotypes so that he can get paying work. And besides, he adds, so many cab drivers really do have accents.
From his vantage point, when everyone’s just trying to look out for themselves, no one person can be completely at fault.
Their back-and-forth reveals what works so well in Master of None: Ansari shifts the blame from an other to an all-encompassing us, so that there is an emphasis on self-reflection and self-awareness, rather than a polarizing undertone of bullying or victimization, which can stymie the kinds of conversations that need to be had.
It is, perhaps, one of the best examples in recent history of normalizing our complex modern existence — one laden with Yelp reviews, parental demands, and a constant influx of assumptions and apologies. Race is an undeniable part of the equation, yes, but it is not the only thing that needs to be examined.
And in this sense, then, the series is quietly radical in a way that is opening the door for more genuine questions, dialogue, and interactions both on-screen and off. It’s paving the way for a more nuanced representation of our constantly changing society.
Shortly after the show’s Nov. 6 release, The New Yorker declared that Master of None “feels like the future.” And if the future is gaining insight into the specifics of an experience in order to recognize the universal, then indeed, it looks like the minds behind Master of None have found a way to get there, now.