Master of None, Character vs. Caricature, and 21st Century Television

Master of None’s advent into mainstream television sparked conversation even in its earliest stages. Prior to the arrival on Netflix, talk about the show made its way onto social media and onto news blogs of HuffPost, LA Weekly, NY Times and more. The show’s hype was primarily centered around not only Aziz Ansari’s writing/directing/series creator debut, but also its contribution to the greater topic of racial representation in media.

The show is considered to be a pioneering attempt by both audiencea and critics because its cast features leads portrayed by people of color. Ansari himself plays protagonist Dev Shah, a twenty-something millennial and second generation Asian American New Yorker, attacking life, casual dating, and job hunting. Comparable to Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Dev’s friends aren’t actually all white either-- Lena Waithe plays Denise: lesbian, WOC and ⅓ of Dev’s NY squad. A majority of Dev’s friends are Asian Americans, and a lot of the humor is derived from the characters’ shared grievances over not only being Asian actors in white Hollywood, but also children of immigrants: vignettes about casting experiences and interactions between Dev and his father are part of what makes the show hilarious and unconventional in the sense that the writers managed to more or less accurately portray a topic that isn’t really touched upon in television. Fresh Off the Boat (2015) also comes to mind the series aims to depict the Asian-Asian American family dynamic at its core, bringing new definition to the classic American family sitcom genre. Fun fact: it’s also actually the first network television show about an Asian American family in over twenty years.

But to me, there’s a couple different reasons why Master of None breaks boundaries a little more effectively than Fresh off the Boat does. While initially I was elated to watch a series about an Asian family actually played by Asian actors, I soon found the humor to be a little off. Millennial me of course took to the internet and to do some research and soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one who felt that Fresh off the Boat was almost lacking something, like it wasn’t as satisfying as the premise promised me it would be. Amongst all of the praise that Fresh receives, there still exists some backlash. Criticism about the show is rooted in the fact that the characters are portrayed two-dimensionally, still playing into stereotypes and caricatures which only reinforce the stigma that Asian people exist in the film industry to solely play secondary characters. The family dynamic in Fresh includes the cheap, Asian tiger mom and her “nerdy” Asian kids: tropes that have been kind of tiring for me to watch time and time again. Which is why I find Master of None so entertaining and important. Dev’s character resonates with me because I feel like he isn’t a caricature. He’s a person who hasn’t completely rejected his Asian heritage, and for once he’s not just another South Asian man who’s a doctor or a taxi driver.

In a television world, however, where there exists so few opportunities for shows about POC with more than just the one POC, I’m still so happy that both Master of None and Fresh off the Boat, The Mindy Project, Atlanta, Black-ish, and Insecure exist. Master of None is not perfect either; articles have called out the show too for having Dev’s love interests all white women.

It’s been a little over a year since the show released the first season on Netflix, and as part of Master of None’s audience, and also as an Asian American, I feel the need now more than ever to discuss the impact of a show like this one, and, in general, to encourage discourse about contemporary television that feature people of color in the forefront. As we make our way into 2017, I, as well as many, hope to see more racial inclusion on our screens in a way that isn’t offensive or patronizing, but respectful and representative of various backgrounds. It’s important to recognize shows with POC leads that have successfully launched into the mainstream, but it’s equally as necessary to realize that there is even more potential and room for growth in television. We’ve made it this far, we have the capability to go even further.

text: isabelle truong
visual: master of none
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