During a recent episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, music journalist Stephen Thompson had written down two words to associate with the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Emmy-winning Netflix series Master of None: “radical empathy.”
His commentary was part of a glowing review of a television show that feels so very necessary right now. Why necessary? Because Master of None, which is about the comedic misadventures and romantic entanglements of New York actor Dev Shah (Ansari), is doing something no other TV show has done in recent memory. It is providing a much-needed stage for characters (and actors) that are not often found on screen, big or small. And by doing so, it is giving these names and faces a chance to share their perspectives, tell their stories, during a time when spotlights in film and television are usually hogged by individuals who are seen as bankable or “audience-friendly.” (Translation: able to guarantee big box office receipts or big ratings.)
“Master of None is refreshingly, genuinely woke.”
And what’s so beautiful about this is that none of it feels forced or contrived. None of it reeks of a major studio feeling obligated to fulfill a diversity quota. None of it feels like it’s being written, produced, or created by people who have no legitimate understanding of the experiences of The Other. Master of None is refreshingly, genuinely woke, a show about living in the Biggest Melting Pot on Earth (New York City) that actually looks like the Biggest Melting Pot on Earth.
Last season’s flashback-filled episode, “Parents,” won a well-deserved writing Emmy for its casually groundbreaking and nuanced portrait of the immigrant experience as well as heavily Americanized first-generation children. (Full disclosure: as the child of an immigrant, it was personally one of the most resonating pieces of television I’ve ever watched.) After all, when was the last time you watched an Indian-American man and his Chinese-American friend make a conscious effort to appreciate their respective heritages on TV?
This season, there are several contenders vying for that aforementioned award. There’s the delicate juggling act on display in “First Date,” seamlessly edited to brilliantly demonstrate the assembly-line mechanics and politics of
online app dating. The women Dev meets range in ethnicities. While some flash by in brief moments, others stick around, and they’re given more room to breathe, share their experiences, and give viewers a more developed image of a person who may not look like the type they usually date. Meanwhile, the color-blind casting never seems deliberate.
Next, the episode titled “Thanksgiving” consists of a series of vignettes, each one taking place during a different year, spanning the course of Dev’s friendship with his bestie Denise as he celebrates the holiday with her single mom (a sterling Angela Bassett), her auntie, and her grandmother. (Dev’s family, it’s quickly established, doesn’t do Turkey Day.) More importantly, the episode shines as it shifts its focus to Denise, presenting to viewers the evolution of a gay black woman’s relationship with her mother. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, it is a beautifully observed capsule. It is also one of the best episodes of television in recent memory. And not just for the meticulous production design of a teenager’s bedroom in mid-90s New York.
Finally, there’s the exquisite “New York, I Love You,” Ansari’s most Woody Allen-esque episode to date. But instead of focusing the camera on several privileged Manhattanites whining about their (white) problems, the show follows a day in the lives of several people who would normally be seen as “background” on any given production. The episode opens on Dev and his friends getting pumped for the release of a big-budget horror flick ridiculously titled Death Castle. Then the narrative takes a detour to follow a doorman who doesn’t get any respect at his job, zigs to follow a deaf bodega cashier and her stressed relationship with her Caucasian boyfriend, and then zags to follow a cab driver in search of a fun night out with his roommates, who happen to be other cabbies sharing a cramped apartment in the Bronx. It all culminates with these walks of life coming together for one purpose: to enjoy a late-night showing of said horror flick at the same theater.
“It's great to see a show demonstrate the struggles, aspirations and relationships of those who are seldom represented.”
The reason why Master of None feels so necessary right now is that it reminds us of the healing power of empathy. Its deliberate choice in getting to know characters that are usually shuffled to the side is a gorgeous thing ― it’s an important thing ― because we’re currently living in a culture that promotes a division of cultures. Call it civilized segregation. We may be the most connected we’ve ever been, but we’re also struggling to survive in the one of the most divisive times we’ve ever experienced. Many of us are too distracted to give a shit about anyone else because we’re usually focused on giving a shit about how we can best express to the world what we give a shit about.
In a world where the loudest, brashest and the most privileged seem to get all the attention and put out whatever they want to put out, it’s great to see a television show demonstrate how the struggles, aspirations, and relationships of those who are seldom represented are no different from the struggles, aspirations, and relationships of those who are frequently represented. The more we see this, the more we learn from it. And the more we learn from it, the more we’ll be able to understand where each of us is coming from.