Aziz Ansari as Dev Shah in "Master of None" (Netflix)

Navigating race, America, identity and food: Aziz Ansari's "Master of None" blazes an important path

“Master of None” exemplifies Aziz Ansari’s delicate mastery of many things beyond self-deprecating ethnic humor


Anis Shivani
June 4, 2017 7:30PM (UTC)

“New York, I Love You,” episode 6 of the second season of Netflix’s “Master of None,” has little of Dev Shah's (Aziz Ansari) presence, yet Dev's philosophical creed is everywhere stamped upon it. In this episode a schlocky Nicholas Cage movie ("Death Castle”) that everyone wants to see unites the diverse young urbanites in a camaraderie of sorts: The movie ending must not be given away, friends must make it a cheesy celebration, afterwards there must be instant nostalgia. We all know this experience well.

New York remains, in our shared mythology, the place most American (or perhaps un-American now?) in the sense that identities can most easily be erased, new friendships and “families” formed, the past can be rewritten and the future invented to one’s convenience. Add to this the new element of technology (a major interest of “Master of None”), and the redemptive possibilities of New York come closer to reality, even if one lacks the money to realize all the possibilities. Of course, the contrary argument, that technology restrains personal reinvention, is also a powerful one, and the show gives plenty of credence to the ways technology can be said to fix racial and gender identity.

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Half a century removed from the heyday of American liberal democracy, which immigrants of Dev’s parents’ generation were lucky enough to have experienced, New York is both constrained and expanded in new ways. An intensely-colored episode like “New York, I Love You” focuses on the immigrant or biracial person or disabled person’s somewhat irrational love for the city, and in doing so reminds us that the presumed shortcomings of the city’s residents, seen from the conventional white bourgeois point of view, may be its most interesting aspect.

The so-called outsiders are actually at the center of the story, which this episode, like “Master of None” in general, presents so well. The biracial doorman Eddie (Frank Harts), whose complicity is sought in a rich white man’s affair and who must deal with one indignity after another; the deaf girl Maya (Treshelle Edmond) who tries to rise above it all, convincing her lover, via sign language in a public setting, of her need for sexual attention; and above all the Rwandan cab driver Samuel (Enock Ntekereze) who shares an apartment with other immigrant cab drivers who have as pragmatic a sense of their place in the city’s racial hierarchy as does Dev on the other end of the class spectrum. All these characters make us realize how utterly odd it is to always see things, in film and TV, from the white middle-class perspective. The oddity of our default point of view is emphasized all the more with the daring trick of completely muting the sound for the middle 10 minutes of the Maya section, so that in addition to our usual point-of-view orientation we are also deprived of the typical sound cues to play up New York’s public spaces to our comfort.

For Ralph Ellison in “Invisible Man,” the invisibility of the racial other is the transcendent fact from which there is no escape; post-racial multiculturalism involves each of the protagonists in “New York, I Love You” in forms of invisibility they fully comprehend, regardless of their class background, and have in fact mastered in a fundamental sense (this typical pattern has both its downside and upside, a tension the show always keeps in mind).

We are more than familiar with the idea of the intertwining lives of urbanites, their fates meeting at critical junctures that at first looked like mere coincidences or side notes. Samuel and his roommates are determined to have a good time, and though they are not allowed entry in a posh club (a slight they accept with good grace), they manage to help some beautiful women open up an eating joint that’s already closed, whence spontaneous dancing occurs in the restaurant and they all go to see “Death Castle” afterwards. All this is ostensibly not about Dev’s own predicament, since he doesn’t have an accent nor is identifiably “foreign,” let alone Muslim — he could pass for a generic “Indian” without the potentially threatening connotations of being a Muslim — but it is actually all about Dev’s own lingering moral crisis.

In both seasons of "Master of None," when the immigrant parents of Dev and his friends are brought into the picture (particularly in the memorable second episode of the first season, “Parents,” directed by Ansari himself), that older New York — that older America — is enlivened and contrasted to today, when overt obeisance to multicultural values is as often as not cover for the more restricted possibilities in practice. There are numerous points of friction between the melting point and the multicultural ideal, and the show consistently brings them out not as matters of historical interest but to provoke thought about which aspects of either model we are currently inhabiting in particular instances, and whether there are valid reasons to continue believing in them.

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Race, it must be said, has been more insidiously identified in today’s culture. It is inescapable, it is in your face, it is everywhere, in so many ways that didn’t exist when overt segregation, until the 1960s, went hand in hand with the idea of the melting pot, i.e., the erasure of race on behalf of the abstract American Dream. Without the established practices of segregation, we confront race at every moment unpredictably, unknowingly, unknowably. In every scene of “Master of None,” race is the great unspoken, in complicated ways. To what extent does Ansari see himself as Indian, and Muslim, and American? What are the various intersections of these categories in any particular interaction with whites of different class, age and gender? This is always up for negotiation — or is it?

Without putting the focus on himself in patently obvious ways — in a way, self-denial is the great metaphysical unspoken of this show — Ansari compels us to view his character Dev with a double glance at him: Our eyes view him being viewed by others as a specimen of his race (or not), and always opening up spaces where we have no choice but to interrogate our own attitudes toward race (and class).

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One of the sweetest ways Dev does this over and over is to respond to racial insinuation — such as the wedding scene in the final episode of the first season, where Dev is greeted in overtly racial terms by the groom’s father — without any trace of either anger or obsequiousness, and some variation of the response, “That was racist,” uttered completely matter-of-factly.

I think this gesture of Dev’s is quite profound, because he is not making too much of it, yet not denying that persistent racial coloration exists in daily interactions. He doesn’t allow himself to be hurt or wounded, but he doesn’t erect unnecessary barriers to social interaction either, as with Rachel's (Noël Weiss) grandmother, in the “Old People” episode from the first season, where he quickly forms a bond across generations and racial divides, overcoming his own prior assumption that she must be racist because she is old. What a contrast to the rage and hypocrisy on both sides of the current debate over microaggressions! In essence, “Master of None” is a consistent parade of microaggressions, stemming even from Dev’s girlfriends, but the way he handles it is something the culture can learn from.  

The great thing about “Master of None” is how — in Ansari’s character certainly, but also in those around him (his parents, his friends, Denise) — the histories of those who gave rise to the contemporary multicultural persona are embodied in the current incarnation. Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang seem to want to say — this has been consistent through the entirety of both seasons — that Dev is more than who he appears to be, that he is the product of particular interactions of culture, contingent on global histories and conflicts, and that those things, as much as his façade in front of us (the parts we can easily recognize), are to be reckoned with if we are to understand him.

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Aside from “New York, I Love You,” the other best episode of the second season is the eighth, “Thanksgiving” (directed by Melina Matsoukas), dealing with Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) coming to maturity and owning up to her sexuality over a number of Thanksgiving dinners, going back to the early 1990s. Here we have the viewer looking at Dev looking at Denise and her black family, at the same time that the viewer is looking at the whole tableau in a detached sense, partly because Dev is the only outsider (other than Denise’s girlfriends) ever present at Denise’s family’s Thanksgiving dinners (Ansari’s parents pointedly do not make an appearance in these scenes), and partly because we are aware of the irony of an Indian boy (and then man) of immigrant origins being higher up the racial hierarchy in American terms because he’s “brown” and not “black” (as indeed the episode hints).

In this teleplay within a teleplay (as mentioned, not only Ansari’s parents but his friends remain outside it) the issue of race is secondary, since everybody is either black or brown, including Denise’s girlfriends — first a smart black woman, Michelle, then a ditzy brown one, Nikki (Instagram username NipplesAndToes23), then back to Michelle — as sexuality takes center stage. The ways in which Denise’s mother (Angela Bassett), aunt and grandmother accept, tolerate or are leery of Denise’s sexuality reflect the same processes we have to undergo with respect to race. Within a racially homogeneous community there are other issues that have to be confronted, in an almost endless chain of negotiations, to bring us closer to the ideal of perfect tolerance and openness.

The Denise episode would not have worked as well earlier in the season, particularly since Dev’s friends, even Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Brian (Kelvin Yu), are not as present until later in season 2. In a way, Dev is on his own, compared to the first season, where he was more reliant on friends, so when his friends’ stories do enter, we interpret them differently based on the amount of growth Dev has undergone before our eyes.

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We missed Arnold — at least I did — quite a bit, but the Arnold we get in the second season is not exactly the Arnold of the first season. He is not the Arnold who loves toy seals and Craigslist couches, the one always asking for comforting hugs, but an Arnold who, while remaining a child inside, has more solidity as an observer of human separation and grief. Arguably the most poignant scene in the second season is in the middle of the ninth episode, “Amarsi Un Po” — the hour-long episode in which Ansari takes quite a few risks in showing his prolonged and frustrating romance with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) — when Dev and Arnold are walking, completely alone, in the middle of a blizzard-inundated street, with snow-covered cars and houses on either side. Later Dev, in a more depressed mode, will undertake the walk in the same location alone, at night, and it is clear that for Dev and his friends a certain melancholy is just around the corner.

The sequencing of emotional highs and lows — or internal rhythm — is carefully orchestrated throughout both seasons. The first season opened with the dilemmas of dating and anxiety about having to settle down, the most comfortable terrain for a television comedy about singles. But the second episode, “Parents” (directed by Ansari himself), took us by surprise, showing Ansari’s confidence in taking up the reality of his own parents’ and his friend Brian’s parents’ immigrant backgrounds in completely unself-conscious terms, letting them speak for themselves and be themselves in a rare instance of authorial erasure.

That remarkable episode is concerned with the morality of Indian culture — and why not, since every normal show, every normal artistic creation, is in subterranean fashion about the morality of white American culture? — or Chinese culture or Asian culture, or any so-called “traditional culture,” with respect to filial piety, looking out for the old and infirm, taking care not to be selfish and narcissistic, remembering one’s personal and cultural and spiritual history rather than living purely in the moment. All this stuff is introduced quickly and without apology or shame, and surprisingly so for any kind of television show, in just the second episode of the first season, from which point on this material remains a steady preoccupation, merging into universal concerns about mortality. Louis C.K., particularly in the first two seasons of “Louie,” a show I greatly loved, was obsessed with death too, as I think Ansari is, in a more subtle way; but Louis C.K. did not have quite the same breadth of cultural references Ansari and Yang seem to effortlessly rely on.

The opening episode of the second season, “The Thief,” is a perfect example of what I mean. In a black-and white pastiche of neorealism, Dev has transported himself to Modena to learn pasta-making, and is at ease speaking Italian and living the small-town Italian life. Here he is an Indian, from America, viewed differently than an American-born Indian in America; he is in another Western country, and though he seems just as much at ease in Modena as he did in New York, to what extent is it because he’s an American, and not just an Indian? He must now confront a different set of what today are called microaggressions, but is he obligated, as a contemporary American, to set Italians straight?

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When Francesca and he begin a tentative relationship in New York during the second season, Dev does correct her, but when he is in Italy at the start of the season he has deliberately taken himself out of New York in order that he may return to home turf a different man. Ansari deliberately surrounds the Italian scenes with a haze of nostalgia — when life was supposedly less complicated, when race was below the surface rather than having bubbled over, when one could choose retreat and isolation from social commitment — which makes it clear that there are internal pressures against indulging in this kind of nostalgia in New York.

In many ways, “Master of None” is about communal representation dealing a blow to self-representation. In an important episode in the middle of the first season, “Indians on TV,” we sense the irony that while the networks engage in genteel racial slurs and doubting that there can be more than one Indian on a television show, the actual show we are witnessing has not just one Indian but many: Ravi, Dev’s endearing competitor for small-time acting roles; Anush, the lactating Mumbai Muscle hulk; and Dev’s parents and friends of his parents. And yet, as Dev might well wonder during that episode, did the world come to an end because there was more than one gay character on a television show? Which compels us to ask, is “Master of None” an Indian show? Is it for and between Indians? If not, is it only because Dev is the kind of post-ideological millennial-generation American who is the epitome of cool? I think such questions are very much on Ansari and Yang’s minds, and they are aware that Dev’s self-representation is in a state of agonism with the culture’s desire to represent him to its own satisfaction.

In a way, then, Dev is in a double bind from which he can never get out. To go back to the opening episode of season 2, set in Italy, what about the charming black British woman whom he meets but with whom he can’t keep up a rendezvous because his cell phone with her number in it is stolen as soon as he gets it? This is another play on the uncertainties of technology, of course, a central concern for the show: “Master of None” keeps asking again and again which side of ours we are presenting to others, as in the hilarious fourth episode of the second season, “First Date” (directed by Eric Wareheim), and what is the role of spontaneity and impulsiveness in a culture so beholden to correct public behavior. More importantly, the cell phone theft removes the potential of a romantic consummation with someone we might consider Ansari’s ideal minority counterpart — his true equal, perhaps.

Indeed, Dev recognizes how nice it is to meet an enlightened minority like himself in Modena. In the first season his main love interest was Rachel, and in the second season it’s Francesca, particularly when she duplicates Dev’s move from earlier in the season by temporarily visiting America and performing the more customary migration. Again, New York, with Francesca’s visit, becomes new to Dev himself, as he takes her around, and is once again tempted to indulge in notions of high romanticism — with the Rachel experience far enough behind him.

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And that’s a central motif overwhelming racial oppression in both seasons, love in a high romantic vein; Ansari’s real-life parents Shoukath and Fatima (who play Ramesh and Nisha on the show), though they may be from an earlier, more staid Indian generation (who grew up under socialist austerity), are in their own way high romanticists. The entire first season’s relationship ups and downs are compressed in the aforementioned risky hour-long ninth episode of the second season, which tests our patience many times, yet, because of Francesca’s ultimately reciprocal high romanticism, justifies our patience — but just barely.

I think there’s a sense, in both seasons, of deep dissatisfaction with what American feminism has become all about, though Dev tries hard to listen to Rachel's (and Denise’s) concerns about male entitlement, whose epitome occurs at the end of the second season with revelations of sexual harassment on the part of the egotistical, Anthony Bourdain-derived Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale). Low-level harassment — both racial and sexual — remains always the undertone sullying professional interactions, but “Master of None” is interested in posing more difficult questions about the priorities of both men and women in this post-feminist age, and what really matters to those with claims to enlightenment.

For the most part, Dev seems comfortable acknowledging and acting according to our new norms of social behavior, though these norms, for the most part, would have seemed utterly alien to someone 40 or 50 years ago. Yet there seems to be a side of Dev that wants to remove himself again and again from implication in our moral order. His friend Arnold does it to some extent, by elevating the joys of childhood (or childlike adulthood) over full “commitment” (whatever that means today), but Dev has before him the additional model of his Indian parents, and other traditional examples, to want something of that for himself. One side of him wants to remain “free” (as young people understand the term today), but he does pose the question with sufficient irony: Should that be the real concern of someone in their late 20s or early 30s, the time when most people are thinking of settling down?

If Dev, as a millennial American-born Indian with the right education and social connections, is ideally positioned to live through questions of multicultural acceptance, what about those less fortunate? Those without the right accent or cultural capital? I think that just as, when it comes to race, we always view Dev with a multiply fractured glance — us watching Dev watching himself as others watch him — the show sets itself apart from much of its competition in contemporary film, television and fiction by always having this split point of view with regard to class.

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From time to time, Ansari and Yang make this explicit. For example, in the final episode of season 2, “Buona Notte,” when Dev makes the typical racial error of mistaking a black production assistant named Graham for Harold, not even remembering that he’s been working with them the entire season, that is a typical “white” mistake, but in this instance it’s more because of class than race. Now that Dev has moved into a different realm of acceptance — from doing Gogurt and Garden Depot commercials in the first season to having his own reality competition show, “Clash of the Cupcakes” and then getting second billing on a food reality show, “BFFs” (Best Food Friends), with a famous chef — how will he see others lower down the totem pole? Will he recognize Indians and others who may not be keeping pace with him? Clearly, Dev isn’t there yet, but even the minutest amount of celebrity imposes segregation and separation; this has become ingrained in our post-racial culture, as we implement racialism through every means other than race.

And what about food? How does that figure in this conflict of the racial other having attained some degree of power, and having the luxury to view himself as others might view him, and having the luxury, moreover, to create a new cultural mythology of this split process of viewing? Why is food so important, both in the first season, with all of Dev’s friends sharing this obsession, to the even greater interest in the second season, from pasta-making in Italy to his potential love interest of the season coming from that food-making milieu to the “Clash of the Cupcakes” assignment to working with Jeff the Chef on “BFFs,” enjoying food and making a living off it? What do we take as most representative of a particular culture in our pantheistic multicultural mode, what is it that we have the easiest time allowing a culture to keep for itself?

Food, I would say, but on this show Dev is a food slut, if you will. He exhibits total promiscuity toward food; he has no national or cultural favorites, although perhaps pasta is high on the list, but he’ll experience anything. It’s interesting to think of the Indian subject being viewed enjoying food from other cultures, not just curries and papadum and whatever is supposed to pass for his own cultural legacy. Does Dev have a right to enjoy pasta? This is still — sort of — a problem, isn’t it? Likewise, does Dev the Indian have the right to be with any girl, of any race, without any questions being asked? This too is still — sort of — a problem, is it not? Is (multicultural) food a distraction? Is (multicultural) sex a distraction? What do Ansari and Yang make us see over and over again in “Master of None” as the stuff that might be beyond distraction, defining and elevating and beautifying us? What is that stuff that’s immune to representation?

In the end, what makes “Master of None” important is that it asks this question without fear or cowardice or self-censorship: Who, in the contemporary world (epitomized, of course, by a city like New York, but really every urban center and increasingly the smaller cities and towns as well), is not a minority? Who has the privilege anymore to assert racial superiority, or any other form? Dev’s parents, like his friend Brian’s father, have been in this country for 40 years or more. They have already altered this country’s reality in fundamental ways, just as immigrants in the past did, so they may be said to have a more privileged view of America — they are more American than native-born Americans in many respects — and its conundrums, which are not limited to racial issues.

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How do we look at a model minority come good (but not from the point of view of the typical Indian parents, who would prefer their son or daughter to be in one of the established professions rather than the precariousness of the creative life), when that model minority lives and breathes the entire range of contradictions with regard to race and religion, and shows awareness of wanting to transcend the base responses on either side of the question? Food, again, is a helpful motif to take a shot at such questions, as in the wonderful episode “Religion” from the second season, when pork serves this function. For Muslims, it is a forbidden food, hence making it an instantly alluring fetish, and when Dev’s parents object to his eating pork in front of visiting observant friends, this becomes an occasion to explain parents’ worry about failing to transmit their cultural heritage in a more convincing way than I’ve usually seen.

Is such a character — Dev Shah on this show, Aziz Ansari the “comedian” in “real life” — part of the new American consciousness? Is he telling us something we already know? Or is he more than that, is he a figment of our imagination, is he the story we desperately want to tell ourselves about the good America, the one we can still be in love with and dream about? Both the melting pot and multiculturalism are ultimately myths, of course, but is there something hard, yet salvageable, that Ansari and Yang make it a point to retain? What is it? After its second season, the show “Louie” reached a crossroads, and didn’t know which turn to make, when it came to answering this difficult question; “Master of None” is now at a similar point in its trajectory.

In “New York, I Love You,” the multiracial characters, operating on the periphery of New York wealth, find narrow spectrums within which to play out their assertions of dignity. For Eddie the doorman, Maya the store clerk and Samuel the cabman, it is about insisting on respect within the parameters of the basic distribution of rewards and recognition. Ansari and Yang are smart enough to depict this narrow spectrum in a way that questions the very reasons for its existence — why not think beyond the typical Hollywood tropes for underwhelming claims of dignity and personhood? — rather than accept them as givens.

Likewise, there is a larger story to be told about immigrant (and minority) assimilation and integration that goes beyond current liberal precincts. When the immigrant (or racial or sexual minority) acts in specific ways to elicit sympathy or respect, are those very behaviors (modeled and precise) racist or exclusivist in predetermined ways? “Master of None” keeps pushing against this uncomfortable question, but in a subtle way that recognizes the creators’ own complicity in playing along with an ideal typology that may only be a shade better than overt stereotyping.


Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani's recent political books include "Why Did Trump Win?", "Confronting American Fascism" and ""A Radical Human Rights Approach to the Immigration 'Problem.'" His novel "A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less" comes out in October. 

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