We’re living in an age of streaming, so it’s super easy to have shows on in the background while you’re working on other things. Mine often rotate between comedies like Parks and Recreation, Broad City, Flight of the Conchords, Please Like Me, Fresh Prince, and most recently, another bash through Friends. The latter is of particular interest to me lately since I’ve also been watching the new season of Master of None starring Aziz Ansari and a slew of other talented actors (including many actors of color). It’s amazing and I’ve been really enjoying it. But what struck me with the comparison between these shows was how much comedy has changed in recent decades.
More networks, more online options, more independent creators making art online… it’s all leading to more acceptance of alternative entertainment playing host to far more widely diverse actors and characters. Now, a Netflix show starring a major comedian isn’t that alternative, I grant you, but while switching between a show like the 1990s mega hit sitcom Friends and the far more lucid dialogue of Master of None gave me some perspective on just how much has changed.
Now, have some corners of comedy not changed AT ALL? Oh hell yes. There are still tons of regressive situation comedies relying on staid formats and tired jokes. Just think about the uproar when Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing was cancelled after six seasons. That’s a pretty long run for shows that seem like they’re from a time gone by.
Not avoiding tougher stuff
[Spoilers ahead if you’re still catching up on Master of None]
In particular, I was watching episode four, “First Date” wherein Aziz’s character Dev ends up in a string of varied first dates via a swipe-style dating app. The conversations were awkward (even the good ones) and SO familiar for anyone on the dating scene in the last five or so years. There’s one plot point where Dev sleeps with a woman who has a mammy cookie jar on her nightstand. I’ve had that exact situation occur in my own life (sans the sex part) and the conversation was wildly familiar.
These divisive images (in cookie jar form and, in my case, seeing it as a huge doll holding toilet paper in a bathroom) absolutely still exist. It’s one of those reality checks with which one could easily find themselves confronted. Current images and relics of racism and prejudice are everywhere, and tackling them within pop culture should be able to help us see them more clearly and articulate their problems.
And don’t even get me started on the episode entitled “Thanksgiving,” which features a series of Thanksgivings from the ’90s to 2017 showing the coming out story of a woman of color (Dev’s friend Denise). It’s hard to articulate just how amazing it is to see the slice of life come to life in such a skilled and less-than-usual way. Just watch it, you’ll see.
Conversely, I watched an episode of Friends which was mildly funny in its own hyper-unrealistic way… featuring a cast of purely white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, upper middle class Americans. Still enjoyable, but without any of the relatability and realism of New York’s actual diverse population. I’m 100% sure there were shows keeping it more real in the ’90s, but it feels remarkably different watching a show like Master of None.
Are we still living in an era of one-dimensional characters everywhere? Yep. Just take a look at the angry, mysterious women in superhero movies. Gamora, Black Widow, Nebula, and others are driven largely by pure anger. The recent lineup of new shows being picked up on networks is shockingly male and white.
Even in personality traits, there’s more going on here. When you’re comparing comedic sitcom characters (say, Friends’ flighty Phoebe and dumb but sweet Joey) to the far more nuanced characters of Dev and his supporting cast, it’s easy to see what’s changing. Dev and his male friends talk unapologetically about their feelings and defy stereotypes that men can’t have fun together in non-bro-like ways. They hug, they tuck each other in, and they support each other in ways that are totally real, but rarely seen in media.
When you meet people in real life, it isn’t easy to slap them into whatever character mold they might fit into. And that’s how I want them to be in shows, too. I don’t want to be able to say, “ah, she’s the materialistic spoiled one, got it.” We want to see variation in all aspects of a character.
Opening this up to you…
How do you feel about Master of None and similar comedies/dramedies trying to keep it more real? Is it failing? Is it helping? How did you feel about the mammy jar episode in particular?