One of the familiar features of American television sitcoms featuring members of marginalized communities is the singular focus on the trials and tribulations of one generalized experience, and only one. Maybe two if we’re lucky. In the 1970s and ’80s, shows such as Good Times andThe Jeffersons were largely thought of as black shows because they featured black leads and black people saying black things, whatever the hell that means. (DYNOMITE!) The shows didn’t represent the experiences of all black people, but they quickly became pre-meme pop culture shorthand for what black people are like. In a way, through TV screens, black sitcoms became de facto ambassadors for black America, and so J.J. Evans and George Jefferson became America’s black friends, as long a they continued to stick to inoffensive black things, of course.
Almost forty years later, storylines from shows featuring underrepresented communities are more complex and the characters more dynamic, but the singular focus on “one experience at a time, please” for any sitcom that isn’t straight slapstick and laugh track still stands. ABC’s Fresh off the Boat tells the story of growing up in an Asian household in America; the same network’s Black-ish is a rendering of the black family and how it experiences assimilation in America; HBO’s Girls tells the story of upwardly mobile white girls struggling in New York City. These are just a few examples, but if you peruse the samplings, it’s clear that, even in 2015, this is how TV serves marginalized lives to the masses. Apparently, that’s all the complexity the sitcom areas of our brains can handle. (Full disclosure: Fusion is a joint venture of Univision and ABC.)
Being visible trumps invisibility.
Yet having otherness served in single-sized portions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. American sitcoms have always struggled or refused to tell nuanced stories of historically muted communities. In that context, being visible—in many cases, at least—trumps invisibility. That’s why the existence of singular focused stories are still tremendously important. And it’s not as if people from outside those communities can’t learn from or enjoy these shows. The struggle, rather, is that many may never tune in in the first place because they naively assume that a story about others isn’t for them.
Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show throws all that “one ‘other’ per serving” thinking off the roof. Master of None changes the game by telling a story about otherness in America through so-called hyphenated American eyes (Ansari and his character, Dev, are of Indian descent) without restricting the narrative to the experiences of that demographic. The show’s storylines and characters refreshingly give voice to other marginalized communities in America (women, LGBT, other ethnicities, etc.), all in the same show, providing a much-needed taste of what’s possible in a world of formulaic entertainment.
Does it do it perfectly? No. Jezebel’s Kara Brown raises perfectly legitimate questions about the show’s representations of women of color. It’s not hard to wish for added layers to certain characters or the inclusion of absent figures, but in many areas, Master of None certainly goes further than any other show I’ve seen.
I realized I’d struck gold by the second episode. In it, there’s a scene where Dev’s father (played by Ansari’s real father) asks for help with his iPad, as parents of all backgrounds tend to do. Dev’s all too familiar response is to blow him off, which hilariously and brilliantly triggers a series of flashbacks depicting the struggles Dev’s dad had to go through on his journey from India for the two of them to be sitting there in New York City having a non-conversation. It’s an powerful sequence, and one that could easily be interpreted as an anecdote from the Indian diaspora. But Master of None smartly doesn’t let the scene stand alone; it advances the story further through a scene with Dev’s Taiwanese-American friend, Brian, who has a parallel interaction with his immigrant father, compete with a Taiwan flashback.
Master of None changes the game by telling a story about otherness in America through so-called hyphenated American eyes.
The cumulative effect of the parallel stories is that what could easily interpret as an “Indian story” becomes a broader and much more easily relatable story of immigration and generational obliviousness by adding Brian’s story. By my non-scientific calculations, the scene has resonated. Several friends of mine, of varying ethnic backgrounds, immediately called their parents after watching the episode. Common reactions have included saying “I’m such an unappreciative asshole” and tearing up. Ansari should be proud. Making the children of immigrants of multiple ethnic backgrounds feel like shit for being terrible, neglectful offspring is a tremendous accomplishment—something that our parents have been trying to get through to us for years.
Another scene—which, in my opinion, is the show’s most powerful one—shows dueling walks home from a night at the bar. Dev and his buddy Arnold take one route, leisurely strolling along in the dark, and a woman (played by Condola Rashad) takes another. The end result, without ever explicitly mentioning what’s happening, is a wildly intelligent portrayal of not just what women experience walking the streets—especially at night—but also the relative male obliviousness or indifference to that reality.
The idea that, in sitcom world, a guy who spends a not insignificant amount of series time depicting the worldview of a second-generation American man would take the time to give a serious voice to the female experience is worthy of several rounds of applause, because that almost never happens on TV. Dudes series, traditionally, equals dude stories. This episode, however, called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” was written by two women, Zoe Jarman and Sarah Peters, and directed by Lynn Shelton. It was an astute decision that paid off in authenticity and voice, ten-fold.
It’s these kinds of scenes that further help Master of None trash the tired notion that shows can only do one thing at a time—that a white show has to be a white; a black show, black; that an ethnic minority show has to stick to its ethnic lane; and that men have to live exclusively in manland all the time.
But Master of None‘s revelation isn’t just how it serves multiple perspectives in one series; it’s how, in doing so, it illuminates a commonality in struggle between communities that are often parsed or even pitted against one another, not just on TV, but also in the real world. Being historically marginalized or muted in America is a shared, common experience that if properly harnessed across communities can be a powerful force for change. Having that come across on television, as silly as it may sound, can help facilitate turning that hope for change into reality.
Perhaps it isn’t intuitive. On its face, the struggle of a brown face finding acting work that doesn’t require playing rote stereotypes (a recurring theme in the show) and the struggle of a woman fearfully walking home at night may seem like an unlikely pairing. But the two experiences, and many others in the show, do share a common thread: they are continued manifestations of an inability to find spaces to be heard outside of one’s own community. That Ansari seeks to provide some of that space in his show is an advancement, not just for Indian-Americans, but for the historically voiceless. It points to the possibility of taking swipes at institutional, cultural, and social dismissiveness collectively rather than just operating separate camps. This is a new roadmap.
Ultimately, the struggle to give voice to marginalized communities, both on TV and off, doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Master of None shows that having time for someone else’s struggle can be both collectively empowering and make for damn good watching.
More of this, please.