When you think about some of the most successful comedies over the last 20 or 30 years, they’ve followed a pretty similar structure to reach their peak. Shows like Friends, Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory feature a group of white people who sit around all day, have relatively mundane problems and have a laugh track that tells the audience when to laugh.
The Office, Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock thrived in an NBC-comedy era when the utter ridiculousness of the workplace was enough to make people laugh, albeit with a mostly white cast as well. And those in the HBO sphere, mainly Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage, were successful because they could be raunchy enough and stay in their own lane without stepping on the toes of the network, cable comedies.
But none of these shows really did a deep dive on issues of race, love and family, rather sticking to topics far safer because it was what the audience wanted. At the tail end of 2015, however, one comedy attempted to change the landscape of the television era, comedy and diversity on TV.
Enter Master of None, a dark comedy written by and starring Aziz Ansari. He plays a slightly more exaggerated version of himself, Dev, a struggling actor living in New York City who is a first generation Indian-American. While the show is focused around Dev, Ansari’s character only begins to scratch the surface for the complexity of characters.
One of Dev’s best friends, Brian Cheng, is Taiwanese-American whose parents emigrated to the United States like Dev’s. One of my few criticisms of the show is that Brian’s character never feels fully fleshed out, but there are moments where Cheng and his father give us a glimpse into the relationship between father and son in a way that only immigrants truly understand.
Denise, one of my favorite characters, is an African-American lesbian woman whose personality shines next to a curious individual like Dev. She continues to offer insight about sex and relationships throughout the season, and watching her confidently flirt with a woman at a work function never feels like Ansari is trying to make a forced point about having a lesbian character.
Arnold, the only straight white male on the show, serves as Dev’s right-hand-man and eating buddy. The two spend a ton of their time discussing Dev’s issues over food, but Arnold, played by Eric Wareheim, doesn’t fit the convention for a normal looking white guy on television in 2016. Wareheim is 6’6”, probably 275 pounds, has a massive beard and shows his sensitive side far more often than most white, male characters do.
The last main character is Rachel, Dev’s love interest but an important character in her own right as she doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of “boring, pretty, white girl” like most other shows would have her represent. She’s featured in the first scene of the show having sex with Dev, when the condom breaks and they’re forced to go to the supermarket to buy Plan B. While most shows would ease into a scene of that nature, Ansari wants the audience to know that he doesn’t want this show to fit into the mold of a conventional comedy.
Throughout the show, issues of contention in America are brought up. Perhaps my favorite episode is when Dev and his friend Ravi go to an audition specifically looking for Indians to play a stereotypical Indian role. When Dev finds out the producer can only pick one of them despite both actors being qualified for the role, he tries to wine and dine Dev by taking him to a Knicks game and to the VIP area.
Dev is conflicted; part of him knows that the producer is totally trying to kiss his ass, but a major part of him feels as though he should stand up for other diverse actors so they don’t fall into this situation as well. Dev is right to feel conflicted, as minorities are seriously underrepresented.
In a 2015 Diversity Report published by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, they found that 77% of characters in cable scripted shows were played by whites, 14% black, 3% Latino, 3% Asian and 3% mixed for 2012-13. For digitally scripted shows, the only major difference was that 12% were played by Latinos and 6% by blacks.
To say that Master of None is bucking this trend would be a major understatement. Ansari’s goal is seemingly to produce content this is completely different and fresh from the current offerings on major networks. In the fourth episode, “Indians on TV”, Dev consults Busta Rhymes and asks what he should do when Dev knows the producer sent a racist email to see if Dev could “curry his favor.” Busta responds in a way that only Master of None could make sound so serious and so funny at the same time:
“Oh no no no no. Cause Indians eat curry? I mean that’s some disrespectful shit. Kinda fucked up, bro. I mean so, he’s bringing you to the game, to butter you up, looks to me he’s trying to curry your favor… This is what I think. You’re a minority trying to come up in the game. You got a rare opportunity, especially because you got the leverage in this situation. I don’t think you should play the race card. CHARGE IT to the race card. “
Busta’s probably right; Dev has been treated so poorly as a minority actor that he finally has a chance to take advantage of the producer to meet celebrities and sit courtside at Knicks games. These are the types of crossroads the show tries to get at at least once or twice every episode: Does it make more sense to do what’s morally right or what you would ultimately reap more satisfaction from?
I asked Jonathan Friedman, an NYU senior in Gallatin studying “Successful Media and Entertainment in a Digital Age,” about why he believes Master of None has had such a powerful impact on the future of television and diversity in Hollywood. Friedman, like myself, set out to understand why this show in particular has been such a rousing success compared to other shows of similar nature.
For starters, Friedman believes “the show is actually funny. Right now we’re in this era where there’s a lot of dark comedies that are barely comedies that are more so just vehicles for talented people that write and are funny… Aziz just drops this show that happens to be hilarious and actually laugh-out-loud funny.” He’s right; often times shows that are supposed to have this much impact are supposed to be dark and serious, while Master of None is funny without trying too hard to be funny.
We also discuss the issue of diversity on the show, a not so hidden move from Ansari by having three out of five minority main characters on the show. Friedman makes a really smart point about that: “The diversity on that show is refreshing… It’s interesting because it starts a lot of conversation where the divide is ‘Is this forcing me to see an unrealistic, diverse world where people wouldn’t actually be friends… or is this just showing you what the world looks like when it’s not just a white-dominant world.'”
However, this white-dominant television world is shifting. He points out numerous shows where casts are entirely diverse, such as the Fox hit Empire, Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat, and Blackish, as well as other shows where minority actors are in leading roles, such as the ABC hit Scandal, where “we can have a black female lead on this show and people are still going to go crazy for it”. While those statistics provided by UCLA are only two years old, there’s already been a tectonic shift in the past two years.
On the issue of whether television is shifting away from cable entirely, we disagree. He argues that cable television will always have a place, citing networks like FX and AMC creating hit shows that are thriving in their own right. I can’t imagine cable networks are going to splurge on big name actors and massive budgets to produce content that people can’t binge-watch on Netflix or Hulu, but this won’t occur for at least another five or ten years if it does at all.
Why does any of this matter? Because one show, Aziz Ansari’s brainchild Master of None, can spark debate over the direction of television, how to successfully discuss issues that other television shows refuse to, and the shift of diversity on television all in one masterfully created ten episode first season. It remains unclear how Ansari plans to tackle new issues in Season 2, but for now he’s sparking great debate in the golden age of television. Even if you can watch that television on your laptop, iPad or mobile device.