Master of None: Aziz Ansari tackles big issues in a smart, funny way

Posted by Cristina Melo & filed under Television.

Credit: PBS
Credit: PBS

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Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, a ten-episode exploration of relationships, sex, race and life in New York, was released November 6th on Netflix to much critical acclaim. Ansari plays Dev, an Indian-American actor in New York struggling to find roles, in part because there are few good roles available to people who look like him. Ansari created the show with Alan Yang, who he worked with on Parks and Recreation. Much of the series is autobiographical as Ansari and Yang are both sons of immigrants, from India and Taiwan respectively. Ansari’s own parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, even star as Dev’s parents on the show.

Ansari’s transition from supporting actor to star and show runner of his own show has been largely successful and he is using the spotlight to bring attention to the continued existence of race issues in Hollywood.

In a letter he penned for The New York Times, Ansari discusses the first time he saw an Indian character in an American movie. It was in “Short Circuit 2”, a 1988 film in which a robot goes to New York and bonds with an Indian scientist named Benjamin Jarhvi. It had a profound effect on him since Indians on TV or film mostly made brief appearances “as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker”, whereas “Short Circuit 2” had an Indian lead character with a Caucasian love interest.

Then, when Ansari was in college, he looked the film up online and discovered that “the Indian guy was a white guy.” Fisher Stevens, a Caucasian actor in brownface and a fake Indian accent, played the character. Ansari states: “As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin, the banker who tricks Johnny 5 into helping him commit a jewel heist. As an adult, I thought the bad guy was actually Mr. Stevens, who mocked my ethnicity.” This realization heavily impacted the casting of his own show as he strove to establish a diverse ensemble of characters.

Ansari reflects on the casting process and how difficult it was to find an Asian actor. As he further explains in the NYT piece, “when you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: ‘You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ‘em!’ But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options.” Ansari cites television programs like “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat”, where the casts are made up entirely of people of colour, as a sign of the changing times. However, despite the progress toward diversity, “the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low.” So, with Master of None, Ansari and Yang’s goal was to tell stories about people of colour and showcase them in roles they don’t normally fill.

The series opens with a strong first episode entitled “Plan B”, which starts with Dev in the middle of a hook up. Thanks to a broken condom, they pause to Google the chances of getting pregnant from pre-ejaculate and afterwords take an UberX to a drugstore where Dev declares, “My treat,” and pays for Plan B and some Martinelli’s apple juice.

This close call causes Dev to evaluate his life and what it would be like to have a kid, an idea he explores by attending a birthday party for his friend Kyle’s baby. At the party, Dev discusses fatherhood with Kyle, who claims it’s given him a sense of purpose and fulfilled him in a way that partying and drinking never did. This rosy outlook triggers Dev to imagine himself in a Norman Rockwell-esque family with two perfect children and a minivan. Enamoured with this possible future, Dev offers to look after his friend Amanda’s kids, Grant and Lila, while she runs to a meeting.

As it turns out, Dev is pretty good with kids. He might be unprepared, but they like him and have a good day at the playground. But it’s not an entirely smooth experience. While getting frozen yogurt Lila yells out, “Black lady! Chinese man!” and Dev has to step in: “Hey, hey. Don’t yell out people’s ethnicities.” When he realizes Grant stole Kyle’s wallet at the birthday party, they return to the scene of the crime. This time, when Dev asks Kyle what his parenting secret is, Kyle tells the truth. His life isn’t perfect. In fact, he’s getting a divorce. “I don’t sleep, I haven’t f—ked in a year, I never see my friends, I hate my wife,” he tells Dev. This time, Dev’s Norman Rockwell fantasy plays out like a horror movie, complete with screaming children, a chaotic house and exhaustion.

One awkward bathroom visit later, Dev and the kids are back at Amanda’s apartment where she assures him he did a fine job. There’s no blood, after all.

Although the episode ends without Dev reaching a definitive conclusion about parenthood, he has a better understanding of both the consequences and benefits of having children. For now, at least, he’s perfectly happy to forgo questionable peanut butter, lettuce and ketchup sandwiches made by children in favour of something from Parm.

“Plan B” is a strong start to this smart, funny and ambitious series. It delivers excellent storytelling while hinting at the exploration of modern romance, gender, race and more that’s to come.

Master of None is available on Netflix.

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