Master Of None's refreshing, funny look at religion

Aziz Ansari (right) and his real-life and TV parents, Shoukath and Fatima, in Master Of None.
Aziz Ansari (right) and his real-life and TV parents, Shoukath and Fatima, in Master Of None.PHOTO: NETFLIX

WASHINGTON • The Religion episode in the latest season of Master Of None kicks off with a sweet, funny and totally relatable series of scenes: Christian, Hindu and Jewish kids all complaining to parents about having to go to their regular religious services.

Then you see Aziz Ansari's character, Dev Shah, as a kid who gets his first taste of bacon at a friend's house. When his mum calls the house and tells her son "we're Muslim - we're not allowed to eat pork", little Dev hesitates. But he cannot resist. He takes a giant bite as Tupac's Only God Can Judge Me begins to play.

This is the kind of treatment you may have come to expect from the critically acclaimed Netflix series co-created by Ansari and Alan Yang.

Master Of None presents universal stories within specific contexts rarely seen on film or television. The result is refreshing, precisely because it is normal and grounded in reality.

"We had this main character whose parents are Muslim and comes from a Muslim heritage, and that's a rare thing in television and in movies," Yang said in an interview. "Typically when you see Muslims depicted, they're terrorists about to bomb somebody and there's scary music playing. So that was part of it, but not reason enough to do the episode."

He said the show's writers had long wanted to explore religion. "We kept coming back to this. It should be funny, a specifically funny, relatable thing."

The result is the third episode in the second season, released earlier this month, in which Dev struggles with whether to eat pork in front of his parents, pretends to fast during Ramadan for his super-devout relatives and introduces a younger cousin to pulled pork. And just like the first season's standout Parents episode, the premise for this one came from a real-life experience.

"My brother decided to eat pork in front of my parents and my mum got really upset," said Aniz Ansari, Aziz's brother and Religion co-writer. "We kind of had that initial kernel of an idea and we thought the pork story is an interesting way to head into such a serious, heavy subject."

Focusing on Dev's approach to religion served as "a jumping-off point to 'Let's talk about how this actually impacts your life and what's the emotional story there?'" Yang said. "It isn't really specific to a religion - so not so much Judaism or Catholicism - it's about how you interact with your parents and how much leeway they give you and how much of yourself you give to them."

There is no clear-cut answer from the show, but it does strive for a mutual understanding. "The more open-minded you can be, the better," Yang said. "One of the undercurrents that runs throughout the show is just a curiosity about other people and other people's lives. That doesn't mean we want to force-feed empathy down people's throats."

The episode drops little nuggets about growing up Muslim in America, such as when Dev says he once thought his parents were taking him to see Jim Carrey's The Mask (1994) instead of to the mosque (again, something Aniz said he experienced as a kid).

When Master Of None debuted on Netflix in 2015, fans and critics lavished praise on the series for the way it presented diversity. The characters of different races, sexual orientations and experiences were just being themselves on-screen.

The first season's Parents episode, which showcased the gulf between immigrants and their America-born kids with humanity and humour, was especially affirming for viewers who had grown up watching TV shows that did not reflect their experiences. Religion strikes a similar chord and it happens to come at a particularly fraught time.

In the time between the show's first and second seasons, Mr Donald Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States", became the Republican presidential nominee and then was elected president. And while Aziz is not religious and previously did not talk much publicly about that aspect of his identity, he has become more vocal about such rhetoric and Islamophobia.

His Saturday Night Live monologue included jokes about hate crimes and the depiction of Muslims on TV.

Master Of None writers did not suddenly decide Dev's character was from a Muslim family. Dev was always based on Aziz. And his parents, like the characters they play on the show, are devout Muslims. "There's all these kinds of misguided depictions of Islam and Muslim people in media, film and TV and we thought it was funny we had a character on our show that my dad plays, who is a clown, just a big goofball that everyone loves," Aniz said.

Religion was written a year ago, but one of the final scenes was filmed the day after Election Day. Aniz said the writers talked about whether they should try to address the political climate and rhetoric in the national discourse. They even tinkered with the idea of including a montage showcasing Islamophobia and racism.

They ended up scrapping the idea, Aniz said.

"For us, the most constructive and fundamental way to approach that problem through the show is to just show Muslim people on TV being normal people," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'Master Of None's refreshing, funny look at religion'. Print Edition | Subscribe