There is a moment from my year as an MA writing student that haunts me and I bring it up a lot because, for lack of a less wanky phrase, it was a moment of social awakening.
As part of the course, we were split into groups and had to individually develop characters in a sitcom. I got given the everyman lead character in my group, and I made him black. I remember that decision clearly because when doing it, it felt like I was being deliberately antagonistic. Which was a bloody weird way to feel. Like I’d internalised the neutrality of whiteness and any other race as “statement.” I’d already caught myself saying “I want to write stories about Asian characters, but also normal stories as well” earlier in the course and wanted to throw up over myself when I realised I’d done so so I stuck with the decision, interested to see what would happen.
We went back into class the next week and explained how we had enriched our respective characters. When I mentioned the details of what I’d done with mine, both the tutor and a fellow student said words to the effect of “Oh no, I didn’t see him as black.” And no-one else seemed to find this a problematic statement. To be clear: it would not have impacted the narrative in any significant way. It wasn’t a show about race. Yet that was the casual reaction from my peers. From my instructors. Now I don’t think they’re bad people for that, it just demonstrated to me how deep the unconscious bias sits. Characters of Colour (as it were) feel unable to be platforms from which to tell “everyman” stories. It’s not quite a “yuck factor” but in the moment it really didn’t feel far off.
It isn’t just me worrying about this, of course. On a scheme I was a part of last year, I had a long conversation with an American writer of Mexican extraction. He was a phenomenal writer (who’s doing big things now so kudos) who said he wanted to write something about his family, but felt it wouldn’t be considered American enough. I was very much “Dude, America as a state is an immigrant nation – any story is American. The lives of Mexican-American families are for everyone to know, indulge in, consume, enjoy.” But of course I know what he meant. You probably know what he meant too, right? It’s inside and out.
Bearing these stories in mind, I want to explain why Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom (?) Master of None is such a big deal to me and why I can finally (hopefully) exorcise that MA story from my mind. You can enjoy MoN as a sharp and witty and insightful sitcom about being a middle-class thirty something in the Big City. And it is that. Kids! Weddings! Friends With Real Jobs! Nothing groundbreaking story-wise. You could watch it all on a long weekend afternoon and have a nice time.
Yet I think for me watching it has been a seminal moment in my writing career and, heck, life. It’s the positive anti-thesis to that awkward classroom five years ago. Does that sound too grand? Right from the opening I knew I was watching something that would mean a lot to me, even if it seemed small potatoes to others. In that first scene, there was a straight Asian man on my screen, existing as a sexual being. I realised I’ve actually seen more gay Asian male characters given sexual characteristics in drama than I ever have hetero characters which is brilliant in one way of course, but I simply hadn’t clocked how much I’d felt that absence.
An idle “checking out” of the series, rapidly turned into an instant binge watch. By episode six I kicked my knackered housemate’s door down and demand he watched it with me. Having both (relatively) recently broken up with people, we cringed in recognition as the broader comedy gave way to hard truth in the brutal arguments Dev had with Rachel, his girlfriend. We both recognised ourselves in that relationship. Both of us. Keep that in your head, it becomes important later.
I should probably state right now that I don’t say this all as an Ansari fanboy. If anything, knowing him mainly from his standup, I used to find his delivery mildly annoying and his whackier physicality (and voices) not particularly funny. In contrast, I laughed out loud a lot whilst watching Master of None. It might be that I grew familiar with Ansari’s style and accepted it, it might be the more humane touches that he applies to the work that lets you in beyond the “front”. You can feel the Louie influence in this series, even if this is very much its own beast.
But I also think though I was just enjoying being able to fully identify with a lead character’s predicaments for once, in nearly every sense and having their predicaments in their entirety be the central point of empathy for the show. I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones. Here, in this show, was the first time I’m properly seen a modern Western Asian character in the mainstream that a majority white audience would have to engage with as their anchor in a show. The “mainstream” part of that is important to me.
Here is an admission that is likely not music to the ears of people who I am currently under commission to. As a writer, I’m more driven by the roles I can create, the cultural artefacts that I can make exist than the stories themselves. That’s not to say I don’t care about stories, of course I do, but it’s the potential social shift around them as well as within them that really gets me going and drives me through the doldrums. This is part the stories, part audience development, part placement/marketing and doing all of this in attempt to mainstream marginal narratives seems one of the most important you can do. It feels radical to move those stories into a non-radical frame within the industry/people’s expectations. And when I say I want to mainstream, I mean it to include the entirety of the lives of those characters within those narratives.
That’s a distinction I’ve been making to a lot of my writer friends of late, particularly theatre ones: What I want most of all is not parts that could be played by anyone, I want what I guess I would call the possibility of Stage Four diversity. What are Stages One, Two and Three, you ask? Here is a rough guide that I just made up.
Stage One – Ethnics exist. Somewhere. Usually at the back. They may be doing some cleaning, or maybe have a couple of lines. If they’re in space, they will likely do both before dying horribly by airlock/alien/asteroid.
Stage Two – Ethnics exist. They’ve a significant presence. And an accent. They’re downtrodden folk from a land elsewhere…but hopeful! It might be great. It might be a “crossover hit”. But it’s mostly in a box. In the corner. And it’s something you usually feel like you should see rather than something you want to see. This is more likely than not an art house movie. You probably saw it on a date. It was probably nominated for an Oscar that it didn’t win (or if it did win, people will question why).
Stage Three – Ethnics exist as a main character. Usually not quite the central character, but up there as significant in a gang show. If they aren’t the lead, they might still have a funny accent. Crucially, if they are the lead, their ethnicity/background doesn’t affect the story in any way. They are led by the plot. They might have been called “Dennis” and renamed to “Dinesh” to meet ethnic quotas. Or a “Gary” that could easily have been white, but you’ve let a black actor play. Less cynically, think Luther. Now there’s a lot to be said for Stage Three. it’s a great and useful space. It’s important that it exists.
Just many consider this the “everyman” space, the Promised Land, and it sort of is. Sort of. But the true everyman experience is…*bing*
Stage Four – Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.
This is the important part, so I’ll say it again with a little more oomph: The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world to the extent that they are not interchangeable but said background doesn’t dominate the broader context and concerns of the show.
To me, this is truest form of integrative, empathetic diversity in storytelling you can create. Everymanning with detail, not erasure. It’s saying in a more complex way than the blank canvas of stage three “Hey! This is someone that doesn’t look necessarily a lot like you or you mates, some of their ways are alien to you, but it’s still you in there.”
Master of None does this, and well. It doesn’t compel you into the character’s journey via an integration story, it’s an intergrated story. It doesn’t ignore the racial/cultural specifics of its characters yet the show is so damn generous with its invariably niche material when it delves into it. For a large part, that’s because it runs said material through its comic set ups which we all get because we all understand comedy. Like the pre-titles sequence of episode two with the two Asian dads (South and East) is amazing and funny and a little heart-rending if you recognise those characters from your life. But as a comic beat, it’s presented as a “parents work hard and kids are such assholes in comparison”. You don’t need to be Asian to recognise the structure of that joke, even if the detail might be lost on you:
On a couple of smaller notes, can I just take a second to say this series *looks* great too. Mostly filmic and the only times this looks like TV is when it wants to. (Even though that aesthetic difference has collapsed in recent years…anyway, for another blog, that). I also love how each episode functions as its own explicit exploration of themes that all feel relevant to me as a young(ish) tech-head in the city. In its construction, it references work I adore, including the awkward character comedy of (good) Woody Allen and the humane pacing of Richard Linklater. There’s even a quasi Before Sunrise episode.
Of course, whilst I think the show is ambitious and interesting beyond its central characters, it isn’t in any way perfect. The very segmented episodes can leave the wider show feeling a little bit uneven. The non-actor parents might annoy (Nida). I love them for their awkward performances, the mum in particular reminds me of my own gran’s discomfort at being filmed, but I get that at least. And yes, Dev is still not quite me. He’s not even the same kinda Indian (Tamil and Gujarati folk being found at complete other ends of the subcontinent) but the cultural identification was still strong. Honestly, even just the visual identification felt like a rush. I don’t think my TV has had to hold the colour brown in the centre of the screen so frequently since I last watched the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
Master of None nails and transcends everything I’ve wanted to do in my writing, particularly with True Brits, and it *probably* torpedoes a couple of things I had in the works. It probably does what I’ve wanted to do better than I ever will. I don’t care. This feels like a fucking great moment. Maybe this is how some of my friends felt when Girls turned up (Or, for that matter, Michaela Coel’s excellent Chewing Gum, currently on E4.)
I exist in the world that I love. In a way that doesn’t deny background but that anyone can empathise with. And just fucking enjoy if that’s all you want to do. People of all sorts have too, and that matters. It’s rocking it, critically and ratings wise.
Watching Master of None has refreshed me more than a holiday I’m about to go on.