How Netflix’s “Master of None” handles diversity the right way

Master of None is a Netflix Original Comedy starring ‘jack of all trades’, Aziz Ansari, who has co-created and written the series with partner Alan Yang. Notably, producer Igor Srubshchik is included in the behind-the-scenes mix —Srubshchik simultaneously co-produced a stint of HBO’s Girls in 2015. Both shows, set in New York City, take radically different approaches to portrayals of diversity and inclusion.

Girls (which features an exclusively white cast) has often been criticized for being exclusionary. It faced remarks from journalist Kristen Warner alongside HBO’s Insecure for its “failure to accurately represent the multiplicity of race and ethnicity in its New York setting”. While on the flip side, Master of None has been lauded for its nonchalant approach to portrayals of race and gender (deliberately featuring a diverse group of main characters). As a progressive series, Master of None does diversity the right way by avoiding gratuitous stereotyping and developing an empathetic and realistic portrayal of identity for each character.

Master of None follows main character Dev (played by Ansari), and the social adventures of a 30-something group of friends. Dev’s friends help him make tough decisions in a hilarious back-and-forth banter style that allow their eclectic perspectives and sense/lack of social privilege to shine. Significantly, the interaction between the black, white, East Asian, and Indian characters in this show feels incredibly authentic. The embrace of reasonable diversity in Master of None is certainly more natural in comparison to placing a token minority member of into an all white group
—think Annyong in Arrested Devleopment.

As viewers, we’re used to seeing Network TV shows take a short-lived moment to offer up a small piece on struggles with racism here and there. Such as the Mad Men Season 5 Premiere, in which a plot-central white-collar joke about equal opportunity hiring practices brings in a wave of black hopefuls to the office. All except one are quickly dismissed from the office lobby, never to be seen again.

As opposed to episodic depictions of race-issues, Master of None is written to thrive around the casual and continual presence of race-discussion. Throughout, it “treats people of color as conflicted, accountable human beings who are constantly making decisions about how to pass, how to assert themselves, and how to inch around the trapdoors of racism while being prodded by ulterior motives” explains Sharan Shetty of Slate.com. Meaning, not everyone in Master of None is merely humming along, tolerating one another, and holding hands. Sometimes their differences build up to a point of conflict, in which case Dev will usually call out this awkward moment with his frank humor to say something like “that’s definitely not how I thought this interaction was gonna go!”. In this way, the writers ensure that the little-known but important social dilemmas faced by each character are taken note of, and not just tossed out as comic relief.

The problem with shallow and homogenous stereotyping on TV is that it seems to pick on one general piece of an overall demographic picture 
(e.g. just Asians, or just females). This tends to produce shallow side characters and takes away from portrayals of individuality and discussions that are unique to more specific subsets of individuals. This concept is sometimes called intersectionality, defined by Pop Culture Freaks author Dustin Kidd to mean “the overlapping effects of race, class, gender, and other dimensions of identity to shape the human experience by situating the individual within a complex system of stratification”. This concept is something that Ansari and Yang likely set out to address via Master of None, as they are cited in various cases talking about the realism and the well-rounded persona that they want to develop for each character.

Master of None excels at handling intersectionality by considering the holistic circumstances from which each piece of dialogue comes. In one specific interview with Jimmy Fallon, Ansari discussed how he just couldn’t bare to cast someone that was pretending to be foreign to play his parents. So he did the unthinkable and instead casted his real life Mom and Dad, who are the center of attention in S01E02 Parents: an episode which aptly contrasts the Dev and Brian’s (his Taiwanese friend) experience as accent free first-generation Americans, with their parents’ struggle as adult immigrants.

What is astounding about Parents is the degree with which this episode paints the full picture of circumstances. While Dev and Brian connect on some points like lack of emotional reach from their asian parents, they each have their own qualms like Brian’s fathers soft-spoken nature and Dev’s fathers annoying neediness. This episode of Master of None, puts forth incredibly developed but lighthearted growing-up flashbacks for each father, including: believable depictions of foreign countries, music tracks, a handful of settings, and depictions of oppression. The flashbacks eventually result in the births of Dev and Brian respectively, and snap back into reality with the direct contrast of their #FirstWorldProblems, like wi-fi connectivity troubles. A critical knock on this episode is that Dev’s father Ramesh is set up for us as medical Doctor, and then makes many unrealistically dense remarks for comic purposes — which may play favor to the common social misconception that immigrants are less intelligent individuals due to their imperfect english.

Fortunately, Dev’s Mother is also asked what she did for fun when they arrived in the U.S., and thus given the chance pipe-in on her own unique twist to their experience saying “I knew your father for only a week when we came here. It was an arranged marriage. I sat on the couch and cried”. Purposefully, Master of None walks the viewer through examples of what it might mean to be poor and living urban India, or an immigrant from a village community in Taiwan. Overall Master of None holds true to its mission of diversity and inclusion through its consideration of the layering effect of intersectionality. Themes like these, and major characters like Denise, a gay black woman introduced in the first episode, are simply something you will not find on shows like The Big Bang Theory.

Now in its second season on Netflix, Master of None has likely found the leeway it deserves and needs by circumventing much of the TV show bureaucracy. Adding it all up: the casting, setting, and approach to humor give Master of None its strong appeal for an urban 20’s and 30’s audience.

It is important to note that this audience is already likely to have positive attitudes towards the discussed social issues. Socially progressive shows like Master of None, The Get Down, and Orange is the New Black are a step forward for realistic and celebrated representations of minorities in mass media. For now, we must recognize that these powerful diversity concepts live only within the demographic reach of online streaming services, and still require a considerable amount of growth and acceptance to gain a firm foothold in the spotlight of broadcast television.