It is not yet halfway through 2017, but I can rather assuredly state that Master Of None is my favorite sitcom of the year. I have had to slow myself down from binging the entire season, instead, taking it a bit slower to savor each installment.
The show, now streaming on Netflix follows character Dev, who is a slightly disguised version of series creator Aziz Ansari. Dev is a struggling actor living in NYC, and the show focuses on confusions about dating, dealing with his family, and being true to his art. Ansari co-created the show with Parks & Recreation (2009-2015) writer Alan Yang, who’s stand-in on Master Of None is played by Kelvin Yu as Brian Chang, Dev’s friend who is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and Dev’s “Chill, super-good-looking friend”. Eric Wareheim appears as Arnold Baumheiser, Dev’s “Token white friend”. Arnold’s friendship with Dev is based on his real-life friendship with Ansari.
Master Of None is a smart comedy of manners that deconstructs the social conventions of Ansari’s age group, taking on the perilous topics of systemic racism and sexism in showbiz, and of course, dating.
Each episode feels like a little indie half hour film complete with title cards and carefully curated soundtracks. So far, in Season Two, they have managed to totally surprise and delight.
One of my very favorites, on a show filled with quirky characters, is Dev’s lesbian friend Denise, played to perfection by Lena Waithe. Waithe was cast after meeting with Ansari and Yang, who had originally written Denise as a straight, white woman who might become one of Dev’s love interests. They rewrote the script to reflect Waithe’s talents. Waithe:
“All of us play heightened versions of ourselves. I don’t know if we’ve seen a sly, harem pants-wearing, cool Topshop sweatshirt-wearing, snapback hat-rocking lesbian on television. I know how many women I see out in the world who are very much like myself. We exist.”
Waithe shared her own coming-out story with Master Of None’s writers’ room and it became the inspiration of the more memorable episodes so far, one that she wrote with Ansari.
“I was just talking about my own struggles coming out to my mother. I didn’t think anything of it, and then before you knew it, Aziz and Alan called me in and like, ‘So we want to turn your story into a Thanksgiving episode that’s centered on Denise’s own experiences. Can you write this?'”
Waithe was already busy writing The Chi, her own series for Showtime and she felt uncertain that she could give the Thanksgiving script the attention it deserved. But, she ended up writing it in just a couple of days.
“I was really nervous, because this was so extremely personal and important. I needed to get it right and do it justice…”
She and Ansari really came through with a hilarious, nuanced and layered, black-themed episode. Thanksgiving takes place over the course of three decades, as Denise and Dev, get together at Denise’s house at six different Thanksgivings, while she struggles to deal with her gayness and come out of the closet to her conservative single mother, played by Icon Angela Bassett, looking absolutely beautiful, her aunt Joyce, played by a scene-stealing Kym Whitley, and her Newport-smoking grandmother, delightfully portrayed by Venida Evans. Different actors play Denise and Dev as they get older, but Bassett plays Denise’s mother each time. The episode’s centerpiece is the emotional scene between Waithe and Bassett at the diner, where they finally get around to a frank discussion about Denise’s sexuality. The result is uproarious, touching, heartfelt and real.
Thanksgiving plays so close to Waithe’s own experience, that she even sent the set director, photographs of the house where she grew-up, where the production recreated her grandmother’s plastic covered sofa and her bedroom wall with posters of Jennifer Aniston.
Waithe now says that the scene where she referred to herself as being “Lebanese” because she can’t bring herself to say the word “lesbian”, came from her own story.
Thanksgiving avoids so many clichés, including the idea that African-Americans are more homophobic than anyone else. The episode goes in very unexpected directions. Waithe:
“There are plenty of queer people of color that are kicked out and mistreated by their family, and I don’t want to undermine their experiences. That just wasn’t my experience, and it’s been an honor to be able to tell a story that we haven’t seen before. My mother’s issues with me being a lesbian were a mix of denial, not really knowing anything about gay folks and worried about what the neighbors were going to think.”
“It’s really complicated, and it wasn’t until I was writing this and put myself in my mother’s shoes did I really understand how hard it was for her to process all of this. I can’t fault someone for not knowing what they don’t know.”
Bassett as Denise’s mother, Catherine tearfully says:
“I don’t want life to be hard for you. It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world; now you want to add something else to that?”
“I am a huge advocate for being out, but I also understand that this is a journey. I wasn’t just coming out to my family, but coming out to myself and trying to be comfortable with my own gayness. So my advice is to do this at your own pace and your own time.”
Waithe says that she hopes that Thanksgiving will show queer people of color how special they are and how important their lives are:
“You are valid and deserve all the happiness in life. So be whoever you are, look however you want. Just be yourself.”