Screen Test

Netflix's Master Of None is a sharp, funny show dropping truth bombs about race and gender

Comedian Aziz Ansari takes on race, gender, romance and family in a sharp, funny way in Master Of None

In the comedy series Master Of None, actor Dev - played by comedian Aziz Ansari - loses a part in a sitcom called Three Buddies even though he and friend Ravi (Ravi Patel) have aced the audition.

They soon find out that it is because the network boss thinks a television show cannot have more than one Indian on it.

"If you do a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everybody's going to think it's an Indian show and it wouldn't be as relatable," says the executive, who blames this on the public's narrow-mindedness rather than his own.

But, as Dev points out, the guy would "never say that about a show with two white people". "People don't watch True Detective and go, 'Urgh, there's that white detective show.'"

The sweet-natured chirpiness of Aziz Ansari's comedy belies its edginess which tends to sneak up on you.

The subtle brilliance of Master Of None is that it explicitly calls out this prejudice - and then quietly gives it the middle finger with its own casting choices, with about half a dozen Indians on the show along with Asians, African- Americans and whites.

You would have to be a single- celled amoeba to find nothing to relate to in this sharp, funny look at modern romance, millennial indecisiveness, the inter-generational disconnect as well as race and gender.

And hidden among the jokes and gags, co-creators Ansari and Alan Yang - who met working on the comedy Parks And Recreation (2009-2015) - have tucked away some delightful role reversals.

  • MASTER OF NONE

  • Netflix

    4/5 stars

It is casually revealed, for instance, that Dev's buddy Brian (Kelvin Yu) is popular with women. That, plus the fact that Dev is the romantic lead on the show, is a powerful counterpoint to Hollywood's desexualisation of Asian men. On the flip side, Arnold (Eric Wareheim) is Dev's token white friend - and as Ansari quipped in an interview, "we gave him a stereotypical white role - he's a fully rounded character".

Meanwhile, a white actor Dev meets on a movie set ends up being his advice-dispensing but otherwise one-dimensional friend - a role usually played by a minority in a mostly white cast.

But this is just the icing on the cake of the main story, which centres on Dev's relationships with his new girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells) as well as with his parents (played by Ansari's real mother and father, Fatima and Shoukath Ansari, who are clearly not professional actors and all the more adorable for it).

The sweet-natured chirpiness of Ansari's comedy belies its edginess which, even in his razor-sharp stand-up routines, tends to sneak up on you as a result.

In between the goofball jokes and charming but throwaway pop culture references, he nonchalantly detonates truth bombs such as why he should not date a beautiful waitress: "She's of the level of hot that if I'm seen with her, people are going to assume I'm an Indian billionaire."

The quality of the writing is a bit uneven, with some of the 10 episodes far stronger than others.

But the advantage of Netflix releasing all of the first season at once is that you do not have to wait a whole month to get to the fantastic Episode 4 (Indians On TV), which charts the tragi-comic history of white actors being "browned up" to play Indians on screen.

Gender inequality is marvellously skewered too. Dev notices that the actresses on his hardware-store commercial are relegated to wordlessly serving lemonade and that the director has hired the "hottest women ever - but... the guys are all frumpy bags of pudding".

But it is not all about race and gender. Episode 2 (Parents) should be required viewing for anyone with immigrant parents.

When Dev and Brian refuse to do small favours for their fathers, the dads each flash back to their tough childhoods in 1950s India and Taiwan and the sacrifices they made for their children (the memory of Dev's father being snubbed by his white colleagues was inspired by Ansari's dad's real experiences as a doctor).

The message of filial gratitude is a bit preachy, but well-edited and heartfelt enough that you can excuse that. And it cuts both ways, as when Brian laments the outward coldness of many Asian parents, noting that his white girlfriend's mother hugged him more during one dinner than his own parents had his whole life.

The chief preoccupation of the show, however, are the travails of modern relationships, as seen through Dev's dating fiascos and his eventual pairing-up with Rachel.

There is not much here that has not been covered by other romcoms, but there is the occasional insight - as when Dev's need to read every single food review before picking an eating spot echoes his dithering on romantic commitment.

In what has been a banner year for sitcoms headlined by Asian actors, the show will inevitably be compared with Fresh Off The Boat, Dr Ken and The Mindy Project - all of which have been accused, to some degree, of not doing enough to change the representation of Asians on screen.

Fresh Off The Boat co-creator Eddie Huang eventually distanced himself from that show because he felt it had watered down his life story for a sort of "reverse yellowface" effect, which has the Asian cast merely re-enacting "universal white stories".

It will be much harder to hurl that charge at Master Of None, which combines its social critiques with more broadly relatable storylines. And the fact viewers are getting to see it all through an Asian protagonist's eyes still feels revolutionary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Busting stereotypes'. Print Edition | Subscribe