Tuesday, March 28, 2017
March 28, 2017: Televised Fools: Master of None
[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On what’s groundbreaking about Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, what’s not, and what to do with that gap.
Master of None isn’t the first, nor the only current, sitcom to focus on an Asian American protagonist: there are historical examples such as Pat Morita’s very short-lived Mr. T and Tina (1976) and Margaret Cho’s one-season All-American Girl (1994); and ongoing contemporary shows like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat. But at its best, as in the two early Season 1 episodes “Parents” (episode 2) and “Indians on TV” (episode 4), Ansari’s show explores elements of the multi-generational, immigrant, multi-cultural, professional, familial, and everyday Asian American experience with a combination of humor and nuance that I’d never before encountered on American TV (much less in a sitcom). Foregrounded as they are toward the start of the show’s first season, those two groundbreaking episodes make clear that Master of None isn’t just a show featuring an Asian American lead (and his Asian American best friend Brian [Kelvin Yu])—they announce a sitcom unafraid to examine issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity with realism and intelligence.
Unfortunately, with the exception of an episode (“Ladies and Gentlemen”) focused on the issue of misogyny in American society and popular culture, the first season’s remaining six episodes didn’t live up to the promise of those edgy early eps. Instead, the bulk of the season’s second half was dedicated to the romantic trials and tribulations of Ansari’s Dev and his girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells), which while both entertaining and realistic didn’t feel particularly distinct from (to name one particularly famous example) those experienced by a different Rachel with her very on-again/off-again boyfriend Ross. Or indeed any number of other sitcom romances—the fact that I could have used literally countless analogies to conclude that last sentence make clear just how central romantic trials and tribulations have been to the genre. Even a rule-breaking sitcom like Seinfeld consistently featured relationship struggles for all of its main characters (other than perhaps Kramer, whose most confusing relationship was of course with himself). In its reliance on the Dev-Rachel dynamic to propel its season-long plot, then, Master of None was as typical of TV sitcoms as those early episodes were unique.
So what do we do with that frustrating duality? (Or, if not frustrating, at least striking, especially if you binge-watch the show’s episodes in the manner I highlighted in yesterday’s post, and see this shift in plot and theme happen so quickly.) One way to interpret Ansari’s decision to take the season in this direction would be audience: that while those groundbreaking early episodes would certainly have spoken to many American viewers, they would also have felt unfamiliar to many others; while relationship drama is of course a kind of story with which virtually all adult audience members can connect. Another interpretation could focus on storytelling itself—the themes of the early episodes made for interesting individual stories, but didn’t necessarily lend themselves to serialized storytelling of the sorts now possible (as I argued yesterday) in streaming sitcoms; while the question of whether a promising romance will survive or not is tailor-made to be serialized across a handful of episodes (leading to an end-of-season cliffhanger of sorts that I won’t spoil here). Or perhaps Ansari just wanted to make clear that while Dev is partly defined by his Asian American heritage and identity, he’s also just that much clichéd but realistic sitcom type: a single person looking for love.
Next TV fooling tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?