Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix comedy, Master of None, feels like a curated playlist crafted by someone who loves and really, really knows you. The concept is a sitcom you’ve seen a hundred billion times — single New Yorker navigates romance, friendships, and love in the big city — but the execution is singular. There has never been a show like this on television, one that moves with warm precision from scene to scene, self-assuredly asking questions about race, immigration, sexism, modern love, and (brilliantly) minority media representation.
Master of None wants to have a conversation about diversity, but it also wants to model what the future of TV can look like. Ansari plays Dev, a commercial actor trying to break into TV and movies, who asks, “Why can’t a show have two Indian guys on it?” on a show that has multiple Indian guys on it. In fact, Dev’s main friend group includes: Arnold (Eric Wareheim), a white man-child with lots of eccentric opinions; Brian (Kelvin Yu), an Asian American who shares a lot of first generation immigrant experiences with Dev; and Denise (real life queer writer-comedian Lena Waithe), a black lesbian who is the most charming character on the show. By episode three, they are all fully realized, an achievement it takes most sitcoms a full season to unlock.
You’re here for Denise, and you should be. Survivor’s Remorse andGrandfathered are the only other half hour comedies that feature black lesbian characters, in the incomparable M-Chuck and underused Annalise. In fact, there’s been dearth of prominent queer women on half hour comedies, full stop, since Ellen came out in 1997. Most of them have lasted only season or less (Marry Me, One Big Happy, Weird Loners, Go On), and the one that has survived (Faking It) is riddled with representation issues, aimed at teenagers, and as white as the North Pole.
We meet Denise in the first episode of the season, “Plan B,” during a debate about birth control. The question her buddies ask her isn’t: “How do lesbian have sex?” It’s: “How do lesbians have safer sex?” Dental dams, is the answer. Saran wrap. Those are actual things these guys say out loud, like no big deal, like people just talk about it on TV all the time. She and Dev also spend one full episode casually chatting about how much better lesbians are in bed than straight dudes. (“Look, Dev, I provide a service. I can make a woman come more times in 20 minutes than she has in the last six months.” “Oh, that’s a good service.”) Denise isn’t just there for sex jokes, though. She opens up conversations about the different realties for men and women in America, from the wage gap to every day street harassment to social media interactions.
What’s brilliant about the discussions on this show is that they never shake down to a question about who’s more oppressed. Yes, Denise exists at the intersection of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Those realities inform her worldview. Brian and Dev have the benefit of a being straight men, but they experience a different kind of oppression. In my favorite episode, “Indians on TV,” Dev gets accidentally copied on a racist email from a studio executive and wonders who famous assholes are supposed to make amends to when they say something racist about Indian people: “Deepak Chopra? The Indian dude from No Doubt?” Brian agrees: “Yeah, who’s my guy? Steve Aoki? George Takei? He’s busy with gay stuff!” Denise tries to commiserate but name checks Oprah and Beyonce and realizes she has the power players in that battle.
Ansari co-created and co-wrote Master of None with another Parks and Recreation alum, writer/producer Alan Yang, and the influence is unmistakable. There are no talking heads, no 5,000 Candles In the Wind, no feuds with Voldemort’s hometown; Master of None doesn’t exist in the heightened reality of Pawnee. The pathos of Parks, however, is infused into its DNA. Unlike most other TV shows about making TV — BoJack Horseman, for example; and 30 Rock — Master of None chooses heart and quiet optimism over scathing satire and snark. And it does it without shying away from complicated, often discouraging topics. It’s also just really, really funny.
Master of None was made for me and you, and for people like us who ask over and over and over again: Why is this show so white? Why is this lesbian character so one-dimensional, and also only a guest star? Why is this writing so tired? Do I have to keep being loyal to a show that’s this bad? And having the rich white straight men in charge tell us we’re asking for too much, that the world’s not ready, and that we should just eat the scraps and be thankful we’re not starving.
At one point, Denise tells Dev: “Look, people aren’t always magical right away. Maybe they’ll become magical. Or maybe they’ll become garbage.” That’s how I feel about most TV shows these days — but not this one. Master of None is enchanting from the very first scene, all the way through.