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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Master Of None is both personal and sweeping in its portrayal of immigrant stories

Illustration for article titled Master Of None is both personal and sweeping in its portrayal of immigrant stories
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Ever since it was announced that Aziz Ansari had tapped his own parents, Fatima and Shoukath Ansari, to play his fictional character Dev’s parents on his show, I’ve looked forward to seeing how exactly this would pan out. “I found my father to be uniquely funny in the role,” Ansari said at Master Of None’s Television Critics Association panel. “Parents” proves that to be true. Shoukath is funny from the moment he steps on screen, but he’s even better when playing off Fatima. “No one else felt like my real mom,” Ansari added at the panel, which also makes a lot of sense after seeing her in this episode. She’s stern and playful all at once, and her delivery of “no, you just took one long video” took me by surprise with just how funny it was. There’s of course something to be said about the authenticity of the casting decision. Even though Ansari’s parents are still playing characters and telling stories that might not necessarily be their own, all of the relationship dynamics are imbued with honesty. There’s depth to Dev’s parents, who really are their own characters within the episode instead of just ideas for Dev to bounce his ideas about generational divides off of.

But even more so than just the authentic relationship dynamics brought on by the casting, there’s authenticity to the storytelling as a whole. Stories about what it means to be a second-generation immigrant aren’t something television is exactly bursting with (although it should be noted that Jane The Virgin also does it quite well), but Master Of None takes it on in all its complexity, without losing the humor. Master Of None certainly doesn’t pull any punches. “Parents” is brutally honest about the hardships Brian and Dev’s parents faced. When Dev eagerly asks his mother what her first day in America was like, she tells him bluntly that she sat on the couch and cried. Dev muses while walking through New York with Brian, “isn’t that the gist of every immigrant story? It was hard.” It’s easy for Dev and Brian to generalize their own parents’ experiences, because neither of them have really asked until now. When they take their parents to dinner as a way of thanking them, they learn more stories that give more depth and nuance to their parents’ experiences other than just being “hard.” Master Of None deals with both specifics and broader strokes. Dev’s mom bonds with Brian’s dad over their shared fear of answering the phone when they first immigrated to America. But the episode also gets at the notion that there is no monolithic immigrant experience, which is why the inclusion of Brian’s family’s narrative is so essential to the episode. There are common themes to both of the fathers’ stories, but they’re still their own.

Again, the fact that Master Of None doesn’t generalize adds to its authenticity. My own family’s story is much different from Dev’s. My dad was still a kid when his family immigrated to America from India, so my perspective as a second-generation immigrant is a little different, but there are still parts of this episode that resonate with me. “Parents” unpacks the larger ideas, the themes of disconnect and difference, all within the scope of these very personal and specific stories and people. These are all themes Ansari has touched on in his stand-up, but with the show, he’s able to delve deeper into the emotions and get more perspectives in there.

Just like “Plan B” acknowledges that parenting comes with many changes and challenges but doesn’t necessarily say that it only spells doom, “Parents” is very straightforward about the schisms between second-generation immigrants and their parents without being unequivocally depressing about it. Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) start the episode by blowing off simple requests from their fathers in order to catch the new X-Men movie (in this universe, there are 15). Actually, even more trivially than that, they’re worried about missing the trailers and trivia questions that play before the movie. Their fathers don’t directly tell their sons they’re being selfish little brats. The episode shows instead of telling, giving both fathers flashbacks to their upbringings in India and Taiwan as well as their initial decisions to move to America so they could provide their sons with computers, guitars, the luxury of fun. “Parents” critically roots these experiences in the points of view of the two fathers, quite literally showing it through their eyes. We get to see how Dev and Brian see their parents, but we also get to see how their parents see them, and it’s the inclusion of those different perspectives that makes “Parents” feel so complete and piercing.

“Parents” doesn’t try to solve the problem either. Stripped down to their basics, episodic comedies like Master Of None will typically introduce a conflict and then try to solve it by the end. But here, Ansari and Alan Yang, who wrote the episode, treat the “conflict” exactly as they should: as something doesn’t really have a solution. Dev and Brian are always going to have this distance with their parents and their cultures. It comes with the identity of being a second-generation immigrant, and it’s something they’ll constantly have to navigate. Dev and Brian become more aware of their privilege and of the sacrifices their parents made, but it doesn’t really change anything in a major way. Sure, Dev sets up a weekly call with his parents, agrees to provide some iPad assistance, and gets both of his parents gifts. Those are nice little moments for the character that do show growth but again aren’t an attempt to say everything’s all fine and dandy now. Even more telling than the gifts scene is the phone call between Dev and his father after Dev doesn’t get the part in the “black virus movie” he’s up for. His father’s love and support comes through, and there’s understanding there, even if the divide still exists. It’s a touching moment, one that’s very representative of Master Of None’s overall voice. The show never sugarcoats, but it’s hardly cynical either.

Stray observations

  • I can remember asking my dad, like Dev does with his mother, about his first memories of arriving in America and expecting some grand story. He mostly remembers that the water from the water fountain was too cold. Dev’s father’s story actually more closely resembles that of my grandfather, who came to the U.S. to attend school. One of my favorite stories is of the time he mistook a hotdog in the cafeteria for a very long gulab jamun, an Indian dessert.
  • Iron Man movies are very good! The guy is strong and funny, too!”
  • “I like Brian.”
  • Dev’s audition in the coffee shop allows Ansari to show off his wonderful physical comedy.
  • I was seriously so smitten with the performances from Ansari’s parents, but I also want to give credit to Clem Cheung as Brian’s father. He plays the stoicism excellently.