When Netflix signed up comedian Aziz Ansari to do a special original comedy series, they couldn’t have possibly expected that “Master of None” was going to spark so much social commentary and conversation. But Season 2 of the show has just absolutely changed the national conversation on so many topics, including LGBT issues and what it means to be a Indian-American.
The show, of course, is a fictional account of Aziz Ansari’s life in which Aziz plays Dev Shah, a 30-year-old New York actor. The show is “loosely based” on real-life experiences, including his travels abroad, his experiences in New York, and the friends and family members who have influenced him.
And here’s where things get really interesting. “Master of None” (the title of the show is a reference to the expression “Jack of all trades, master of none) was really meant to be more of an itinerant series, moving from here to there at whim, showing some funny scenes from Aziz’s life. (In Season 2, for example, Aziz winds up in Italy.)
That approach was a remarkably successful formula for Season 1 back in late 2015, when the show routinely made the list of “Best TV Show of 2015.” Critics loved the show, and ranked it as one of the Top 10 shows of the year. There was a lull, and then in May 2017, here came Season 2, fortified with 10 new episodes.
On the surface, perhaps, viewers weren’t expecting the series to become such a spark for social commentary. After all, one of the key plotlines of Season 2 was the character of Dev Shah going to Italy to learn how to make pasta. There were some funny scenes – like the one where Aziz Ansari and his friend accidentally get their car stuck between two buildings in Italy. But then came “Thanksgiving”…
In “Thanksgiving,” Dev shares the story of how he likes to celebrate Thanksgiving with his childhood friends since his parents do not celebrate the holiday. And one of his best friends from childhood (Denise, played by Lena Waithe) happens to be both black and queer. That led to the idea that the episode would feature Denise talking about her decision to “come out” and announce that she’s queer. The episode also featured Angela Bassett as Denise’s mom Catherine, and that’s where things became explosive – the mom is not so accepting of Denise, and that sparked a major conversation about LGBT life.
In fact, that one episode attracted so much buzz that Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe did a special feature for New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, in which they broke down, scene by scene, how and why they decided to do the “Thanksgiving” episode. Lena Waithe is also gay in real-life, and was willing to share her own experiences and ideas about what it was like to come out on TV.
And there have been other episodes that have also sparked social commentary. For example, Episode 3 (“Religion”) features Dev and his decision not to be a devout Muslim. He can’t possibly tell his parents that, so he has to fake it in front of them. That led to a lot of discussion in the media and entertainment blogs about Aziz’s “pork-fueled feud with his parents.”
More generally, it gets to the root of what it’s like to be Muslim in America. That’s a particularly sensitive topic right now, especially with all the discussion about a “Muslim ban.” How are Muslims assimilating into America? How are they reacting to the Muslim ban. Aziz is such a funny comedian, that we sometimes don’t even think that he’s thinking about these issues. But he’s only human, and it’s clear that all of his hilarious “brown people jokes” are really meant to be a biting commentary about America and its unwillingness to accept Muslims as equals.
And then, in another episode of the show, Aziz Ansari explores how it’s possible that everyday people can actually be racist in their own way. In Episode 4 of Season 2, for example, he dates a number of different girls, and the one he ends up sleeping with actually has a figurine in her home that the character Dev Shah interprets to be racist.
That raises an interesting question – especially from a social commentary perspective – and that’s how people can claim they have “brown friends” or “black friends” and yet still be racist. It could be that these feelings and emotions are so deep under the surface that they don’t even know that they are there. But the appearance of something seemingly as innocuous as a figurine can bring them to light.
Finally, there was one other issue raised in Season 2 that has started to get traction on the blogs and social media, and that’s the very difficult topic of sexual harassment. Despite all the claims that women are equal to men in America, it’s still the case that sexual harassment in the workplace is rampant. And that’s a topic that “Master of None” hasn’t been afraid to tackle.
So, as you can see, “Master of None” is really more than just a Netflix original comedy. It’s more than just funny insights into Aziz Ansari’s life. No – it’s really an increasingly important platform to discuss important social issues that show up again and again in daily life.
Take the example of LGBT issues. That’s something that Aziz Ansari rarely – if ever – tackles in his standup comedy routines, but it’s a topic that suddenly shows up in “Master of None.” Or take the issue of sexual harassment. Aziz may make a lot of jokes about how he is “human garbage” for the way he acts around women sometimes, but his show takes a deeper, more critical look at the issue.
Ultimately, comedy is a great tool for exploring these issues. And, as we’ve seen with Aziz Ansari and his amazing Saturday Night Live (SNL) hosting gig after the presidential election, he’s increasingly willing to take a stand on tough issues. That’s what makes “Master of None” such a great Netflix show. Even as we’re laughing, we’re also getting incisive takes on deeply important social issues.