“My dad used to bathe in a river, and now he drives a car that talks to him,” says Brian Cheng, a Taiwanese-Chinese-American played by Kelvin Yu, to Dev Shah, Aziz Ansari’s character in “Master of None.”
“So crazy to think that every immigrant story is probably that insane,” Dev replies.
Netflix’s newest original series illuminates the 30-something, post-immigrant experience through a millennial-of-color perspective. The show began streaming Friday, and has been the talk of TV and topic of critical acclaim ever since.
After binge-watching all of the first season’s ten episodes, I’d have to agree with the majority of TV critics that this is Ansari’s crowning achievement. He and co-writer and producer Alan Yang have made many good choices — and one questionable one that could easily be redeemed if there is a second season.
Let’s start with what’s good:
1. BEST: Aziz Ansari’s real dad is in the show.
Aziz cast his actual parents Shoukath and Fatima Ansari as his parents in the show, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His decision adds a candor, chemistry and real immigrant family idiosyncrasies (think “dad jokes”) that would be difficult to replicate under any other circumstances.
It was an easy decision for Ansari, as he shared with Jimmy Fallon last week, especially after auditioning actors for the part who performed in fake Indian accents. (He addresses this industry phenomenon his his show).
“I wanted those characters to feel real because sometimes, when you see immigrant parents on TV and film, they’re very broad, and they’re just these vehicles for these hacky ethnic jokes, where the dad will be like, ‘Oh, there’s a tandoori chicken in my pocket,’ and you’re all like, ‘that’s not really what happens,’” Ansari told Fallon. “I’ve been around a lot of Indian people. That doesn’t really happen too often.’”
2. BEST: The show builds on an old white paradigm.
You’ve heard of the proverbial struggling actor in New York. “Master of None” takes it to the next level by creating an accessible proverbial struggling actor of color in New York. The episode “Indians on TV,” is dedicated to constructing that typical tale through the South Asian New York experience.
3. BEST: The cast!
Kelvin Yu, Eric Wareheim and Lena Waithe play Dev’s best friends. (via GIPHY)
Aziz’s performance effectively shows how cumulative racism, complicated by romantic relationships with white hipster girls, can turn an exuberant New Yorker into one jaded skeptic.
Over the 10 first-season episodes spanning just over a year of Dev’s life, Aziz’s wild energy is dampened and matured by both overt and subtle racism. The excellent cast of characters include the chill, “tell-it-like-it-is” Denise (Lena Waithe of “Dear White People” and “Shit Black Girls Say” fame); his Taiwanese-Chinese-American counterpart Brian (Kelvin Yu); and his best friend, the bizarre friendly giant and token white guy Arnold (Eric Wareheim).
Noel Wells, formerly a Saturday Night Live cast member, is also a sweet comedic addition as his love interest. Their collective performance feels natural, without forced multiculturalism or contrived remarks about racial experience.
The show is a step forward and has already earned its own voice in the small, growing world of Netflix and Amazon originals; it succinctly addresses racism in the entertainment world, delivers a variety of humors, from deadpan, to outrageous, to unbridled exuberance, to cute and bizarre. And it works.
4. BEST: The writers show that racism afflicts everyday people. Therefore, racism is an everyday problem.
Actor performance is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making racism real. Ansari and Yang treat racism like the brown equivalent of a white person losing their cat or getting a parking ticket — without trivializing it. And the show still has key moments of shaming the worst offenders. After Dev is accidentally included in a racist email thread debriefing his audition, Denise assures him that the guilty film executive will get fired if he leaks the email to the press.
“Come on, Denise, people don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff,” Dev tells her. “… I mean if Paula Dean had said, ‘I don’t wanna serve Indian people,’ no one would really care. They would just go back to eating biscuits.”
“Yeah, but Paula Deen didn’t get in trouble anyway,” says Denise, referring to Paula Deen’s “N-word” slip and much crazier things she has said in defense of slavery. “I mean, she gave some fake-ass apology, and then went back to making fatty foods.”
“True, but she did have to apologize, right?” Dev responds. “Like she had to go meet with Al Sharpton. I mean, that’s kind of the punishment. … We don’t have a person like that. Who are we supposed to meet with? Deepak Chopra? The Indian person from No Doubt?”
5. BEST: Dev is saved by a Busta Rhymes cameo.
Aziz’s character Dev has just called out a certain white director for something racist he says about Indian people that involves “currying favor.” Just in time, Dev meets Busta Rhymes at a party and asks him what he should do about it.
“Don’t play the race card,” Busta tells him. “Charge it to the race card.”
That’s right! Stick it to the man!
6. BEST: Lena Waithe.
Her understated, off-the-cuff humor as Denise sets her apart from the boys with wired and decidedly more straight observations. And actually, Denise was supposed to be a white, straight woman, but Ansari liked Waithe so much that the character was rewritten as a black lesbian, similar to Waithe’s own experience.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Why doesn’t this girl have her own show?” Well, she does, actually. “Twenties,” based on a web series she produced about a young African American woman finding her place in the world as a blogger, recently debuted as a sitcom on BET. After co-producing “Shit Black Girls Say,” “Dear White People,” and now “Twenties,” it seems that her career as a producer can only move up from here.
7. BEST: It’s as timeless as it is timely.
Influenced by his take on modern romance as well as some Woody Allen comedy tropes, the episodes are saturated with millennial dilemmas: texting politics, being overstimulated, and having too many options for where to get tacos. The problems in the show are signs of the times where everything on a screen is designed to compete for our attention. To gain clarity, Dev ends up consulting Sylvia Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar” for advice, which ultimately helps him act on an important decision he needs to make.
The fact that “Master,” which has been called a less dark “Louie” for millennials, and a more brown, less racist “Seinfeld,” among comparisons to other shows, demonstrates that there is a timelessness and universality to the characters and themes.
8. BEST: The immigrant experience is real.
Maybe even a little too real. What kind of parents call you at 10 in the morning on a weekday to ask if you can come over and help fix their computer? Immigrant parents. That last one was my story, not Dev’s. But yes, something similar happens in “Master of None.”
And what’s even more real and worthy of second-generation guilt is that we American-born vessels of our parents’ hopes and dreams, even in our 30s, feel like we deserve, somehow, to have “a normal American experience” (whatever that means). And this is somehow being disrupted by parents’ wishes. The lesson here is that our lives are richer for it. And when it comes down to it, we really owe our parents everything after what they’ve been through.
When I was a kid, my mom used to always tell me this story about how her family let her keep a duckling that she raised as a pet until it was an adult. One day, she came home from school, and she found out that it was being cooked for dinner that night, and she was forced to eat it.
Can I just say how crazy it is that Brian’s dad in “Master of None” has almost the same exact story (except his was a chicken not a duck)?
Is that just something that all parents from Taiwan tell their kids to make them feel guilty?
I was blown away at how well this show knows me and my parents.
This brings us to:
WORST: No color in love.
Though “Master of None,” you have reached the depths of my soul, I still have one complaint. All of Aziz’s love interests are white, except for one Asian girl who just uses Dev as a meal ticket. What are you tryna say? That Asian people are cheap?! That they cheat the system? Come on, man!
With that, “Master of None,” I forgive you for this season, but consider casting another woman of color love prospect that’s not just trying to take home leftovers for the week.
Regardless, Aziz, I hope I will see you and your friends on Netflix for a second season.