Everyone’s gushing about "Master of None" right now, especially my Asian-American friends. People have praised it for its authentic portrayal of immigrant families, of racial representation in media, of casual sexism and the need for a feminist response to it, and of just being a confused millennial in an information-oversaturated world. People have called it a worthy followup to Louis CK’s "Louie" in its French New Wave-inspired cinematic style and realistically awkward, meandering dialogue.
I haven’t yet seen someone put their finger on the one unifying factor among all of these strong points that, to me, makes "Master of None" such a perfect piece of TV: Imperfection.
All of this “French New Wave” stuff--the extended takes, the long pans incorporating obstructions into the scene, the dialogue riddled with pauses and stutters and interruptions--just means that the show is shot and cut the same way the story is written, with an eye for the messiness and unpredictability of real life. "Master of None" is a show where things happen out of order, dangling plot threads stay unresolved, and no question is ever really definitively answered--and that’s what makes it such a breath of fresh air.
I say that especially because the Achilles’ heel of trying to deal with “heavy” subjects like those "Master of None" touches on is a too-pat story, a narrative that tries to say too much and prove too much. When Kelvin Yu, who plays Brian on "Master of None," talks about the cringiness of playing roles where a well-meaning white writer has the Asian character end up killing himself or his loved ones because his existence as a cultural fish-out-of-water is so torturous, that kind of ambition is what gets these shows in that mess.
Take the immigrant narrative from episode 2, “Parents”. We know this story--a father and son torn apart by their allegiance to different cultures. A son who can’t fully appreciate the sacrifices his father made to give him a better life. A slow, painful reconciliation as they grow to understand each other. We’ve seen that movie. It is, in fact, the very first movie (or, rather, talkie) ever made, venerable enough to be parodied on "The Simpsons."
"Master of None" knows we’ve seen that movie, so it burns through that whole movie--twice!--in two five-minute montages. We get the highlights-reel version of Dev and Brian’s dads’ respective journeys as Indian-American and Taiwanese-American immigrants. We’re told very clearly and simply what we already know--these guys went through traumas and struggles to give their sons a better life that their spoiled sons will never appreciate, ironically because their lives are so much better they’re incapable of understanding how much better they have it.
We cover this ground very quickly because the filmmakers know we, as audience members, know this story. And they know Dev and Brian know it. And they know that those of us in the audience who really are children of immigrants already know it.
And we know that knowing that story doesn’t really make much of a difference. The cold, harsh truth is that the distance that develops between immigrant parents and their kids due to different childhoods, different cultures and different expectations from life--that distance can’t be magically cured. It’s permanent. There is no redemptive, climactic, cathartic scene that closes that gap and makes everything okay.
Which is why "Master of None" has the big dinner scene where Dev and Brian ask their dads to tell their life stories and make a resolution to appreciate them more at the beginning of the episode, not at the end.
The episode isn’t about that big guilt-trip moment where Dev and Brian realize they’ve been taking their parents for granted and resolve to do better. It’s about the fact that those moments--which tend to happen regularly, if you’re a kid like Dev or Brian or me--come and go, and after they’ve gone life stays pretty much the same.
It matters that Dev makes an effort to reach out to his dad. It matters that he schedules in a weekly phone call that they didn’t have before. But there’s no magic moment of hugs and reconciliation. Dev’s relationship with his dad is still weirdly awkward because of the lack of shared experience between them. Dev’s attempt to somehow validate all his dad’s sacrifices and pay them back--buying him a guitar that he could never afford in his own youth--is, like most dramatic gestures, kind of hollow. His dad appreciates the effort but returns the guitar because it turns out he doesn’t really want to play the guitar anyway--the strings hurt his fingers.
For me, as a child of immigrants who’s struggled my whole life with that tired old “Caught between two cultures” routine we’re all familiar with by now, that is the important part of the narrative. Not acknowledging that the problem exists--which tons of media has done by now--but rejecting the fairytale message of reconciliation and redemption that that media tends to default to.
Feeling like you can’t relate to your parents isn’t so bad that you have to melodramatically kill yourself over it. It’s also not so easily surmountable that you can get over it with a gift, or a hug, or a heart-to-heart over dinner. It’s something that, for most of us who have that feeling, we’ll have our whole lives.
And… that’s okay. That distance doesn’t mean you don’t love your parents or they don’t love you. It doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t burden you with an unrepayable debt. It’s just another painful, unavoidable piece of the human condition.
Or take episode 7, the much-remarked upon “feminism episode,” “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The feminist message in that episode is straightforward--women have nasty stuff happen to them all the time, being stalked, being belittled, being pushed into the background, and the men in their lives are barely aware of it. When Dev is pushed by his girlfriend and his female friends into being aware of it, he takes action, and the accomplishments he achieves--getting a subway pervert arrested, getting a commercial he’s working on to rewrite the script to put women in the foreground--do matter.
But there’s no final reward for it. The subway pervert isn’t a demonic evil Dev can really feel good about vanquishing, just a fucked-up dude who, once he’s actually in handcuffs, Dev feels “weirdly sorry for”. Dev is happy to be a male feminist hero when he’s loudly shouting feminist slogans and ranting about the patriarchy in the bar, getting high-fives and drinks bought for him and being lauded as a Great Ally.
He’s less happy about this when, in the cold light of day, it turns out his fervent support for equal treatment of the genders has led to the commercial he’s working in being rewritten to give several male roles to female actors, resulting in him personally losing a job he’d been counting on. He failed to consider that all his zealous rhetoric about the deck being stacked against women logically implies that un-stacking the deck must, logically, harm some men, and that one of those men might be him.
I confess that as a guy who’s traded on the “male feminist” label the image of Dev happily lapping up praise for his ideals and then reacting with shock and anger when those ideals actually cost him something hit pretty close to home.
So did the next plot twist, which is Dev brooding on the lack of material reward he’s gotten for his bold ally stance, only to suddenly and unpleasantly find himself being called out for callously dismissing his girlfriend when she points out an instance of disrespect. “What, is everything sexist?” he shouts, finding being asked to check his privilege again after he’s already done it once today an intolerable burden, seemingly forgetting about how gleefully he was pushing the envelope to be ever-more-extreme of an ally the night before.
Again, "Master of None" shatters the standard three-act structure of a standard TV script. Dev doesn’t have a come-to-Jesus moment where he suddenly realizes the importance of feminism, becomes a better man because of it and gets a satisfying happy ending because of it.
He finds out what most “male feminists” find out--that the honeymoon period of feeling like the world’s most awesome person for understanding Feminism 101 ends pretty quickly, and that actually being a feminist--or actually being committed to any moral principle--means a lot of times you make real, unpleasant sacrifices without any compensating reward. He learns that one grand gesture of self-sacrifice doesn’t earn you “points” or a “pass” that make it somehow impossible for you to be the asshole again the next day, or even later in the same evening.
He learns that the Patriarchy isn’t some problem of the week to be defeated by getting one creeper arrested and it isn’t something he can divorce himself from just by declaring himself an “ally” and putting on a “male feminist” badge. It’s just another painful, unavoidable piece of the human condition.
The fourth episode, “Indians on TV”--the one all the Asian-American media people I hang out with are so excited by--does the same thing with complicated questions like racial representation and public shaming. The episode revolves around Dev’s struggles as an Indian-American actor looking for non-stereotypical roles, suddenly finding himself with the opportunity to hold a network executive’s feet to the fire for a racist comment he makes in an email.
The show makes it clear Dev has the right to be upset but also that his temptation to bring down the executive is ultimately petty and vindictive—“Let’s get people tweeting mean shit at this dude!” and “Getting people fired is so bomb.” The advocacy group he enlists to potentially launch the campaign is treated as kind of a joke--a blowhard in a crappy office who brags about his ability to get his followers “pissed about anything.”
And the dilemma Dev is put in--to publicly shame the executive for his actions in solidarity with all Indian-Americans or to accept the “bribe” (as guest star Busta Rhymes puts it, “charging it to the race card”) of a cushy network gig in return for his silence--is made moot by the plot. The “villain,” the possibly racist network executive, dies of a heart attack. When Dev’s friend Ravi tries to spin this as a victory for the good guys—“racist motherfuckers die off and we take over!”--Dev just greets him with stony silence.
The show never denies that racism is real, or that putting up with racism is draining and painful, or that racism limits people’s careers and hurts people’s lives. But it also never embraces the easy, Hollywood-ized narrative that being “anti-racist” is a simple decision with no tradeoffs that never hurts anyone. Dev’s agent berates him over the money and influence he could lose by trading his career for his principles (while Ravi at the same time undermines the moral stance of using your money and influence for good by admitting that the money he’s made from his compromises as an actor he mostly spends on “buying cool clothes”). Dev finds to his chagrin that Ravi finds it in himself to turn down a job on principle right at the moment it costs Dev the windfall gig he’s been hoping for the whole episode.
Just like with feminism, there’s no easy way to be a hero. You get plenty of opportunities to stick up for what you believe in, but quite a lot of the time that ends up with being punished for doing so without anyone swooping in to give you a last-minute reward or round of applause.
The most prominent way "Master of None" subverts expectations, of course, is with the core love story between Dev and Rachel. Rachel gets introduced as Dev’s partner in a disastrous one-night stand ending in a humiliating trip to the pharmacy for Plan B, leading us to think she’s just a footnote in Dev’s lifetime of sad, awkward stories. Then Rachel comes back as the Other Woman who shows up by chance on Dev’s date from hell, only to turn out to be taken at the time and to be Dev’s “One That Got Away.” Then it turns out her getting away wasn’t permanent, and she and Dev have a wonderful meet-cute fairytale first date--a “meet-cute” that occurs after they’ve already met, had sex and had a pregnancy scare--only for that date to also end in disaster.
But the disaster, too, is not permanent. Few things in a real relationship are permanent, and the twists and turns that lead to their finally ending up together lead to an episode, “Mornings,” that’s nothing but twists and turns--showing how the “happily ever after” of most stories is just one long second act of fights and reconciliations with no neat resolution in sight.
To me, though, that’s the least interesting instance of "Master of None" grappling with imperfection. Yes, the standard Hollywood love story could certainly use subverting, but it’s been subverted a lot before, right down to the conceit of things happening “out of order.”
I think we as an audience are ready for the idea that a man can find love with a woman he meets in a disastrous one-night stand and things do and don't work out the way he'd like. I think we’re less ready to have conversations like that about heavy, abstract issues like sexism and racism, about dealing with aging and mortality, about figuring out where you fit in our culture. The easiest thing to do is for most stories to ignore those questions entirely; when we do confront those questions we avoid their complexity and go for Very Special Episode stories that reassure us that there’s a Right Thing To Do in such situations and that we’ll be rewarded for doing it.
When it comes to issues of identity in particular we’re taking steps forward, but perhaps not far enough. Eddie Huang expressed his deep disappointment in "Fresh Off the Boat" for not telling his own child-of-immigrants story, a painful one that doesn’t have a happy or simple ending. Fans of "Fresh Off the Boat" I’ve talked to praise the Huangs for being a “true-to-life” immigrant family but an idealized one, the one we wish we had rather than the one we actually had.
The truth is all of these things are hard. Being a woman in a sexist society is hard; being a male ally who wants to help fix that instead of just being a callous asshole is also hard. Being a parent raising a kid in a culture that’s alien to you is hard; so is being a kid feeling like your parents will always be foreigners to you.
Being a minority working in the media trying to fight the status quo and make change happen is painful, and difficult, and likely to fail, and requires giving up some parts of yourself. The exact same is true of being a minority working in the media and deciding to go with the status quo and make money for yourself in a system that doesn’t respect you. Neither is the “true best choice” and neither is the “easy way out.”
The recurring theme of Dev’s life in "Master of None" is Dev trying to make the optimal choice, talking it over with his friends, Googling and Yelping and using all his research tricks, and still coming up short. Aziz Ansari cites Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz’s "The Paradox of Choice" as an influence in "Master of None," the groundbreaking book arguing that the more knowledge we have of how many options we have in life the less happy we are, as we become paralyzed with the desire to know which choice is the best choice.
In an oft-quoted oh-so-millennial moment from the final episode of the show, “Finale,” Dev spends hours researching what the very best taco joint in New York is only to find that by the time he gets there they’re closed for the day. “What am I supposed to do?” he yells plaintively, “go to the second-best taco place like some kind of asshole?”
All you have to do is look at Google’s autocompletes to see that Yelp reviews of taco places aren’t the only things my generation is searching for. “How to fight racism in my workplace,” “How to be a better male feminist ally,” “How to succeed without selling out”--people Google those queries every day, hoping that someone somewhere has written up the answers. And you’ll find plenty of how-to guides on these topics written by opinionated Tumblr users and “success” bloggers with an inspirational speaking sideline gig and content farmers aggregating what everyone else has written.
You won’t come any closer to finding actual answers, though, on how to be the best anti-racist or the best minority who balances assimilation with authenticity or how to be the best male feminist ally who’s really honestly an ally and not just doing it for the “ally cookies” (Dev's reward ends up being a small cake).
The best you can do is the assurance "Master of None" gives you, citing Sylvia Plath--that it’s better to make the second-best or third-best or even tenth-best choice than none at all. And that doing so doesn’t make you an asshole, or at least not more than anyone else. It just makes you human.