In his 2016 acceptance speech when season 1 won the Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy series, Master of None cocreator Alan Yang said, “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard and for so long that stories about anyone else seemed kind of fresh and original now, ’cause you guys crushed it for so long that anything else seemed kind of different.”
That, to me, is a perfect reflection of Master of None’s first season. With the variety of stories told about subject matters that are not part of the mainstream, this series is essential viewing. It tackles issues such as the relationship between immigrant Americans and their first-generation kids, feminism, and institutional racism. It also puts a twist on more conventional subjects, such as having kids, dating, and romantic relationships. The episodes play more like short movies with recurring characters, where the primary intent of each episode is evident in the title. Season 1 is more insightful than comedic, and for many people such as myself, it will expand their worldview as it gives a window into different perspectives.
Two episodes in season 1 hit a particular chord with me and, I think, exemplify the show. One is “Parents,” in which we see parallels between young first-generation Asian immigrants Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Brian (Kelvin Yu), who have carefree lives and get to talk about X-Men movies, and the lives of their respective fathers, who struggled in their home country and dealt with prejudice in America in their early years. The second is “Indians on TV,” which begins with a bittersweet and funny montage of animated Indian stereotypes, such as Apu from The Simpsons, and white actors in brownface with exaggerated accents. The episode then goes into Dev’s struggles to find acting gigs that don’t require him to do an accent.
I can’t classify season 1 as exceptional, but it is definitely fresh, original, and different. However, should season 2 bring about another award, a similar acceptance speech would undervalue its great strides of genius. In its newest episodes, the series steps up from delightfully quirky to artfully funny. It continues to explore cultural differences between first-immigration kids and their parents through episodes like “Religion,” but it goes further by not just examining but celebrating the diversity of American life. Two episodes that do this beautifully are “New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving.” Like the movie of the same name, “New York, I Love You” explores a number of different New York stories. It has some laugh-out-loud moments, but it is more successful than the film in stirring up fascination for the city that never sleeps. With the range of delightful characters that this episode explores, you cannot help but wonder about the infinite diversity that exists within the city limits.
In “Thanksgiving,” we see Dev spend every Thanksgiving since childhood with his black friend Denise and her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Denise has few appearances in the season, which is a shame, but this episode is a shining exception. Being myself an Indian man who is more than a little sad and confused about the blatant racism within Indian society against anyone with a dark skin tone, the concept of a young Indian having a bond with a small family of African American women was beautiful and tear jerking to me. They are as comfortable as family in this episode, not afraid to push buttons or have honest conversations.
Toward the end of the season, Master of None also handles the often-told story of forbidden love, but the show does it in such a masterful way that even though it includes many classic tropes, it feels absolutely real. There are choices in cinematography that show how talented the cast is what they do with the script, especially Aziz himself, who in an extended single shot of him alone in the back of a car stirs up a painful fist of emotion in your heart.
If you’re not watching this series, you are missing out on modern American storytelling. The series is created by a group of culturally observant people who are fully making use of their opportunity to tell the beautiful stories that represent a greater America than we are used to seeing onscreen.