You have made many modifications upon your person, huh?
—Fisher Stevens as Ben Jahveri, Short Circuit 2 (1988)
You look, but you do not see.
—Hadji, Jonny Quest, “The Curse of Anubis” (1964)
I am from India.
—Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, The Party (1968)
“Indians on TV,” a particularly barbed episode of the Netflix comedy series Master of None, opens cold with a channel-surfing collage. A channel over from the above lines, there’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its jewel-bedecked merchant savoring a spoonful of “chilled monkey brains.” Then there’s a convenience store owner (Apu, The Simpsons), then another convenience store owner (Singh, Booty Call), then two convenience store owners (Raji and Kashmir, Encino Man), then a white kid doing his best impression of a convenience store owner (Zack Morris, Saved by the Bell). There’s fire-breathing Dhalsim from Street Fighter II, next to Mike Myers as the sitar-toting Love Guru, next to Ashton Kutcher hawking Popchips in a 2012 commercial: “I’m Raj. I’m a Bollywood producer. I’m looking for the most delicious thing on the planet.”
When, following that opening montage, the episode’s title glides in—“Master of None Presents … Indians on TV”—you might wonder: are these “Indians on TV”? According to which screenwriters, which casting directors, which blinkered imaginations? If you do the requisite IMDb searches, you’ll find that half of these “Indians on TV” aren’t Indians off it; that some are “Indians” that Western imaginations have confabulated and cobbled together, the cultural equivalent of “Asian fusion” cuisine; that the rest recycle the same tired stereotypes, thin and unfulfilling as Popchips (slogan: “never fried, always real”).
If you’re familiar with Aziz Ansari—as a sketch performer, a stand-up, or as Parks and Recreation’s bubbly-as-shaken-champagne Tom Haverford—you know several Indian American characters with more dimension than all the above performances combined.
In Master of None, which he cocreated with Alan Yang, Ansari plays Dev Shah, a first-generation Indian American who is neither a stereotype nor stereotype’s antivenom. Dev, a young actor with an unaccountably nice NYC apartment, can be suave, thoughtful, infantile, dapper, petty, superficial, even “fucking silly” (an ex’s dead-on diagnosis). He calls sneakers “sneakies.” An aesthete, maybe merely a picky eater, he has just enough technical know-how to give iPad support to his parents, charmingly played by Ansari’s actual parents, Shoukath and Fatima. He’s uneasy being alone and rarely is: unlike the “Indians on TV,” singled out and comically ostracized, he is routinely seen with family, coworkers, dates, a friend group spiced up by one “token white friend.” By the end of the show’s 2015 debut season, he has become the rare Asian American character whose life we see fully, year-round, in quotidian and life-changing moments alike. To borrow an academic term that has recently entered mainstream discussions of race, he makes Asian American lives visible.1
Both for its first season and its new, more ingenious, more graceful second season, Master of None has become one of the most lauded shows in our era of “Comedian-Auteur TV.” Yet rankings and superlatives are an awkward fit for a show pledged to compassionate plurality. In Dev’s New York, there is a “best taco” (Los Tacos No. 1, the al pastor) but not a best story, a most deserving life, a single protagonist standing in for a city.2
Master of None’s camera strives to be as worldly, as indulgent, as Dev himself.
From its pilot on, Master of None made curiosity its core virtue and its narrative divining rod, leading Dev in the direction of unquestioned premises and invisible stories. At its bluntest, the first season resembled afterschool-special didacticism, or sociological inquiry repurposed as drama, with lines like “What’s up with X?” or “Why would you do Y?” or “This may be weird to ask, but why are you Z?”3 But its most distinctive episodes embed Dev amid unfamiliar lives (kids in “Plan B,” immigrant parents in “Parents,” old people in “Old People”), and together they share their thoughts, sitcom-silly mishaps, and at least one delicious thing (frozen yogurt, Taiwanese roast chicken, rigatoni with vodka sauce). As much listener as leading man, Dev wants to get schooled on lives not his own. Working toward visibility is as integral to his character as to the show’s.
In Season 2, every episode wonders aloud what it might mean for an Indian American—or any brown person, a Muslim, an immigrant, anyone—to be seen in 2017. Through Dev and his fellow actors, Master of None can directly address visibility on television: in Season 1, Dev was a chronic audition-goer, exasperated with the limited roles on offer for brown-skinned actors; in Season 2, he becomes that most minor of celebrities, the host of the fictional Clash of the Cupcakes. But representation on television is just one aspect of visibility that the show’s characters obsess over: their perennial conversation topics also include fashion, selfies, GIFs, Instagram, body types, emoji innuendo, chubby cheeks, social-media first impressions, covertly taking video in public, and interracial dating.
Visibility, Master of None recognizes, is equally a matter of substance and of style. Some viewers write off Master of None as style alone, all flash and immaculate design: the best-researched profiles so far written on Season 2 are not about the show’s cast or crew but take on Dev’s fictional apartment, wardrobe, listening habits, and go-to restaurants. But Master of None and its characters understand that style, even at its most frivolous, is never neutral. In one episode, Dev’s father follows up compliments of a hunky cousin with a complaint: “We need more Indian models.” (“More?” Dev asks. “Is there even one?”) In another, Dev and a first date grumble over the racial dynamics of dating apps. (In the cold open, a woman at a supermarket inspects the Nutrition Facts of Wheat Thins with one hand, absentmindedly swiping on Love@FirstSight, the show’s Tinder parody, with the other hand.) A few episodes later, Dev reminiscences with his childhood friend Denise (Lena Waithe) about past Halloween costumes: “Indian Peter Pan,” “black and Indian Mario and Luigi.” Race, or its absence, or its casual distortion, is everywhere these characters look.
The right way to look—the most democratic, the most dignifying—may be how Master of None loves to film its characters: head-on, without interruption, dotingly framed, in long, lingering shots that take everything in. Unusually for a comedy series, Master of None is filmed in widescreen, with an anamorphic aspect ratio (2.35:1)—less Parks and Rec than Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It’s a cinematic look that might connote naive self-seriousness, or arthouse glamour, or both: Master of None is always willing to laugh at and alongside its central characters. It also wants to take in whichever stories play out in the background and in its frame’s wide margins. Even when the show huddles around a friend date, an Uber ride, a father and son’s afternoon stroll, life always goes busily on behind them. (Both seasons bend back onto familiar rom-com arcs: the show becomes most formulaic when it wants to capture intimacy, reverie, or solitude; you watch and wish that third wheels would start rolling in.)
Even more in the new season, Master of None’s camera strives to be as worldly, as indulgent, as Dev: a typical episode might include food porn money shots, wordless montages that work as stand-alone mini music videos, Goodfellas-style Steadicam tours through a restaurant’s workings. This season’s first two episodes take place in Modena, Italy: the first, shot in black-and-white and almost entirely in Italian, pays homage to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), down to fanboyish recreations of classic shots. Inserting an Indian American character into those alluring European backdrops, the show imagines visibility at its most elegant, mobile, and aesthetically astute. Later episodes refuse to flinch from Dev at his lowest: one glares at Dev for the entirety of an Uber ride, as he sits glumly alone in the backseat, his feelings somewhere between his outward mopiness and the neon melodramatics of the soundtrack, Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” (“Take a look at my face / For the last time / I never knew you, you never knew me”).
Later in the second season, that curiosity-compelled camera roams, and the show ventures two narrative experiments that feature Dev only rarely, trading Ansari’s caffeinated comic energy for other tones and topics. For all of 30 seconds, “I Love You, New York” is a Master of None episode we’ve seen before, with Dev and his friends working pop-culture minutia into Socratic contortions (if you mention that a movie has a twist ending, but don’t describe the twist itself, have you still spoiled something?). Abruptly, in the manner of Richard Linklater’s Slacker or Simpsons pinnacle “22 Short Films about Springfield,” the camera turns its full attention to less visible New York stories, working-class and immigrant lives on the margin: doormen, a young deaf couple, African cab drivers. In a characteristic closing chord, what finally unites the entire city is aesthetic experience—specifically, the fictional Nicolas Cage vehicle Death Castle (“Everyone is dying to get out!”). “Thanksgiving,” the series’ miracle of narrative compression, squeezes three decades of family meals into 31 minutes, an album of portraits of black womanhood over time: Denise, coming out to herself, friends, family; her single mother, Catherine (Angela Bassett), uneasily accepting her daughter’s sexuality; aunt Joyce (Kym Whitley) and grandmother Ernestine (Venida Evans). Nothing here is Dev’s story to tell, but he is welcome every Thanksgiving as comic relief, mac-n-cheese taste tester, Denise’s confidant and joint-rolling coconspirator. Directed by Melina Matsoukas (of “Formation” fame), “Thanksgiving” ends on a crane shot that floats up above the dinner table to see everyone together: Denise and her family hold hands and say grace, the circle around the table completed by Denise’s girlfriend Michelle (Ebony Obsidian). No image better condenses Master of None’s eye for acceptance and interdependence, its wish to widen traditions rather than break them, its grace and graciousness.
The image I remember most vividly—another touching final shot, touchingly spontaneous where “Thanksgiving” is all touched up—comes from “Religion.” An episode about being Muslim in America that makes scant mention of Islamophobia, and no mention of Donald Trump (about whom Ansari has written elsewhere),4 “Religion” pays little mind to how outsiders, let alone bigots, see Muslim Americans. Instead, it explores visibility within communities among opposing family members. Over Cubano sandwiches and barbeque ribs, Dev bonds with his more religious cousin Navid (Aziz’s cousin Harris Gani) over keeping up appearances with your parents, and the tugs-of-war between faith and taboo, playing along and acting out. “Hey, I get it, we’re Indian,” Dev assures Navid, “Got to keep up that facade.”
In a Thai restaurant, Dev takes his radical stand: in front of Navid’s halal-observing parents, he orders crispy pork with Chinese broccoli, mortifying his own parents. The ensuing disagreement is Master of None’s preferred form of stalemate: once so self-assured, Dev realizes that everyone—himself, his parents, his peanut gallery of friends—may be in the right, which manages to solve absolutely nothing. The episode’s closing dialogue takes place over iMessage: “Does bacon count?,” Dev texts his father; “BOY GET OUTTA HERE.” The final scene—wordless, scored to the dreamy drift of Bobby Charles’s “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”—crosscuts between Dev at a wine bar, greeting and cheers-ing friends, and his parents at a mosque, during and after prayer. It’s at least the hundredth time in Master of None you see Dev drinking wine, and the first time on this show, maybe on any American comedy, you see a mosque being what it is. Ansari’s parents happen to give winning performances, building off Shoukath’s palpable delight in and Fatima’s begrudging assent to starring on their son’s show. Here, they’ve never acted more easefully, if they’re even acting: by now, we’re practically in an Ansari home video. Everyone is in their element, wherever that may be, happy to see each another, happy to be seen.
- For academic use of the term, see, e.g., Cinema Journal’s recent focus on Asian American film and media, in which Ansari and Master of None are frequent touchstones: Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3 (Spring 2017), pp. 115–168. For mainstream discussion, see, e.g., Amanda Hess, “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.,” New York Times, May 25, 2016. The year before, Ansari wrote for the New York Times about Asian American visibility: see Aziz Ansari, “Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race and Hollywood,” New York Times, November 10, 2015. ↩
- When it comes to Asian American visibility, Netflix can boast both achievements (see Ali Wong’s gleefully infuriated special Baby Cobra, or Hasan Minhaj’s part-bildungsroman, part-PowerPoint Homecoming King) and demerits (see Marvel’s Iron Fist—better, don’t see it). ↩
- In Season 1, several scenes act out findings and anecdotes from Ansari’s book with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance (Penguin Press, 2015). ↩
- See Aziz Ansari, “Aziz Ansari: Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Family,” New York Times, June 24, 2016. Ansari hosted Saturday Night Live the day after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the chief subject of his opening monologue. ↩