What separates ‘good’ television from ‘bad’ television? Beyond that, what elevates ‘good’ television to ‘great’ television? There has to be characteristics that help us, as a potential audience, differentiate what shows we should look most forward to watching regularly. Obviously this information is important to the production companies as they can sell ads at higher rates and audiences can enjoy season after season. Critics can even manage to sustain careers by telling viewers what is worthy of our time and those that they believe deserve critical acclaim. The foundation of deciphering the cacophony of options comes down to analysis. Although some shows, like Firefly and Freaks and Geeks, take longer to garner that attention, it is the deliberate engagement with and interpretation of a show that leads to its greater understanding and timely significance. Interpretation lends itself to figuring out just how the show’s qualities work with each other within the context of both the show itself – its representational reality – and the ‘real world’ we live in. The process of analyzing and interpreting the show entails participating with the show as a text in and of itself, carrying out such tasks as asking questions of the narrative, the filming techniques employed, questioning the intended messages or even the desired audience, and what it is trying to potentially say about the current real world scenarios it depicts. Many of these potential questions boil down to investigating how the audience is involved in the particular show.
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s show, Master of None, is a perfect resource in which to carry out this investigation. As a Netflix original series, the first season of ten episodes was uploaded simultaneously to be binge-watched at the leisure of subscribers. This is the first characteristic of the show worth noting. Unlike major network shows that are generally created consistently throughout the season and subsequently aired weekly, Netflix produces the episodes of a season in their entirety and ready to view immediately. This ultimately endorses a show’s creators at a higher level because the show cannot change midseason. From a critical standpoint, Netflix series often can change the role of the viewer in that they are not included in Nielsen ratings and fan input cannot dictate the direction the show takes as it moves forward. However, ascertaining the thoughts and reactions of the overall viewership is simpler due to participation with social media and comments are more substantiated because the show as it was meant to be produced in the eyes of its creators is what they are actually reacting to.
The coolest thing about Master of None is that it’s real. Like actually real. The dialogue and events that take place throughout every episode, in finite storylines and arching ones, don’t seem out of place or overly manufactured. Although the show definitely and unwaveringly caters toward millennials as they enter the ‘real world’ – post graduate life, finding and working in legitimate careers, no longer living in their parent’s basement or off their parent’s dime, thinking about life-changing choices like marriage and family – you don’t have to be one presently to truly enjoy it. I wouldn’t say the show could be necessarily understood by elementary school students, but those who are younger are still inundated with choices and look up to those ahead of them to navigate the mystery of the unknown ahead. In the same light, those who are older can watch and enjoy Master of None because they survived that part of their life and can relate to their own adventures through life, just from a sense of nostalgia that allows them to appreciate the nuances of the life they lived and appreciate how they got to where they are or even have an outlet to question the many diverse possibilities that could have resulted from other choices made.
Shows like Seinfeld, Louis, and Girls that came before it, Master of None is set in New York City. Like those shows, the city itself becomes an active character for the audience to engage with. It is a bustling city so full of life and options, never sleeping and always on the go. This nature is characterized flawlessly into the scripts of each episode as the characters are trying to find themselves. The difficulty in slowing down to contemplate the state of being for each character is hard to achieve in such a place. Also similar to those shows and others like it, although seemingly about nothing in particular, are jam-packed with messages and subtlety that illustrate the world we live in. They seem so simple at the outset but when considered through the lens of what is often depicted on television as ‘normal’, Master of None puts its foot down. When it comes to constructs of power and dominance – what the show represents in the form of such characteristics like race, sex, politics and their corresponding ideologies – Ansari and Yang manage to combat the hegemony of American society.
After a lot of thought on the topic, I would say I still haven’t fully come to terms with the reality represented in the show. It is inherently American, at least the America we talk about on paper – a melting pot accepting any and all willing to work hard, striving toward a greater good – but is incredibly opposite to the spoken America of today. Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, is the catalyst for the show’s happenings and is the son of Indian immigrants. His parents in real life actually star in the show as just that. The most special part of the show in my eyes, is the fact that ‘whiteness’ is questioned directly and indirectly in the very foundation of the show. Dev’s friend group consists of a gay, black woman, an almost tokenized, large, white male friend whose sexuality is often left to be decided, and his white girlfriend. Inherently, we have an interracial relationship and a confident, gay woman of color that not only helps Dev navigate his own relationships but starts her own with a to that point, presumably ‘straight’ woman.
Three episodes come to mind when I think about how the show influences the audience and causes them to reflect on the nature of their personal life in addition to their presence in a greater whole. Parents, Indians on TV, and the Finale all question the ‘normal’ narrative of today’s television and are merely three (out of ten possible and real) examples of how Master of None effectually challenges viewers to engage with the text in their own personal way and questions the status quo. Parents is an episode about very little in regards to the actual dialogue between characters, but is hyper-focused in the actuality of their existence as Americans. This is the depiction of their almost entitled lives in a burgeoning technological world of a rapidly progressing America in stark contrast to the lives of their parents and the hoops they jumped through to provide such a life for them. This is the story of the plight of the immigrant and the illustration of the American Dream. Indians on TV is the deliberate questioning of why minorities cannot star in a major television broadcast other than tokenized. Master of None outwardly questions this while simultaneously proving its capability through its own cast. The Finale deals with a society of overconsumption and arguably too many options that such a world has afforded. It is significant because these feelings are not changed due to race or sexuality. All people struggle with handling the inundation of information.
I love this show and I truly believe in its critical importance because it forces the viewer to question their own privilege or at least question and better understand the politics of power that exist outside of their own dominant views.