I’ll resist the temptation to post the nigh obligatory “Winter Is Coming” meme and just point out that I’ve been hermiting and watching a lot of Netflix lately. And I’ll counter the opinions of many who claim to current Golden Age of Television is dead; between House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, and scores of other Netflix exclusive films and shows, this era of on-demand, ad-free, quality television is something completely unthinkable to me as a young person. We had movies on demand through cable, but between Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and countless ahem more dubious opportunities to stream media, it’s never seemed more accessible. While these upstart streaming services may have seemed a base form of entertainment at first, it’s becoming apparent that they’re quite the contenders when contrasted with standard cable television. These venues also become a place for underrepresented voices to be heard, from trans woman of color Sophia played by Laverne Cox on OItNB to aging, closeted gay men and their families on G&F.
Enter Master of None by rising star Aziz Ansari. (Spoilers below thru-out.)
I’ll admit a few things right off the bat. Some of Ansari’s stand-up leaves me cold. It always feels like something I want to like more than I do, because Ansari himself is a likable dude. However, his Live at Madison Square Garden special made me have faith in his stand up (and stand up in general) once more. Here’s a cisgender man talking about how women face street harassment, the complexities of how we westerners get our foods, and tensions between generations of Asian American immigrants. It was refreshing, and fucking funny. I laughed and snapped my way through the special like I haven’t been able to do with stand up in quite a while.
Many of “the rules” of stand up have changed since I was a teenager – and for good reason. Punching up as a concept is now more universally understood and accepted; its meaner big brother, the “equal opportunity offender” is dying out. Those who bemoan the changing tides of “political correctness” sound like dinosaurs, and many younger comedians garner their appeal from being savvy on social justice concerns. While imperfect, the influx of female comedians gaining in popularity over the last decade – from Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, to Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have shown that women who talk openly about feminism are not only funny, but can become comedy powerhouses. Even in the brief time between Fey and Pohler’s ascent to Jacobson and Glazer’s has been transformative in terms of how far the popular consciousness has come. In short, we demand more now from our entertainers.
Ansari has risen to the challenge in many ways. His series, Master of None picks up on points only hinted at during his Madison Square Garden special. Here we get a panoramic view of what it means to be a first generation Asian American. The show deals with racism in the entertainment industry and feeling pigeonholed as a minority. It pays homage to the struggles a previous generation endured in order to secure a better life for their children, while owning up to some of the cultural differences between the two that cause them to be somewhat estranged from each other. Denise, a butch lesbian of color, features prominently as a recurring character, and her sex life becomes part of the discourse in a way that feels naturalized rather than objectified. Here again, as with his special, Ansari makes room for the stories of women and street harassment to have air time – even acknowledging how men tend to downplay these stories.
For all of its home runs, the show falls flat in two key ways… First, the material of the first few episodes is fresh, groundbreaking, and even subversive. During the last three episodes however, the show devolves into, well, a kind of tired rom-com. Second, during the Indians On TV episode, Ansari and co. delve into the struggles of overcoming racist stereotypes so ingrained in our popular representations, and the ramifications this has on casting decisions and opportunities for work for southeast Asian actors. They discuss whether or not it’s appropriate to use “a voice” that sounds like what western audiences are accustomed to hearing come out of Indian mouths; particularly if it’s nothing to close to how the actor normally speaks. Mindy Kaling is invoked by name during this episode, and the absence of her or any other Indian woman (other than the lead character’s mother) becomes, in that moment, especially glaring. Indeed, much of the show deals with the main character, Dev’s love life, but his only love interests are white women. Claire Danes cameos aside, it’s disappointing to see these casting choices made after an entire episode dealing with racism in popular media. While this does lead to an opportunity to discuss the dynamics of interracial couples (which the show successfully does) it is disappointing to see no Indian women of Ansari’s generation represented. As someone who is a third generation Indian (and mutt; that is, a host of other racial and ethnic backgrounds as well) it’s always a sore spot that there are so few Indian women and nearly zero Indian queer or trans folks in any sort of western limelight. This feels like an overlooked opportunity for another Indian to gain notoriety.
Don’t get me wrong – Master of None is a fine series. Compared to the also recently released W/ Bob and David by sketch comedy veterans Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (replete with Muslim stereotypes, threats to visually depict the prophet Mohammed, a hearing person using a Deaf “voice,” and actual, literal blackface) Master is comedy gold on a silver platter. If my social media feeds are anything to go by, it’s definitely inspiring some thoughtful conversation, the way any good comedy should.
Photo credit: Pitchfork.com