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?
Comments on What Master of None shows about how far we’ve come with comedy
I adore this show! Somehow season 2 was even more well-written and relatable than the first season, while still doing a fantastic job of making gutsy artistic choices. The First Date episode is a perfect example of this, as is the first episode and its suggestions of Fellini. Only in a show like this could the beautiful absurdity of that first episode (and Mario! I love Mario!) coexist with First Date and Thanksgiving and the nuanced unfolding of his relationship with Francesca. Those sorts of romantic entanglements never seemed to get far beyond “I am so attracted to this person” in the Friends universe (though I’ve watched that show 300 times the same as the rest of us). What I love about this show is, as soon as we finish an episode, my husband and I sit there and TALK about it. That to me is a mark of well-constructed TV.
Yep, 300 times sounds about right for me, too. 😉 But I’m with you. I love that Master of None really does take the concept of a romantic comedy from a male perspective and runs with it so well and with so many nuanced perspectives. Love!
Love Season 2! The halal episode is also fantastic! I was cheering Ansari on in his recent Fresh Air interview, when he discussed bringing in actress Lena Waithe and producer Melina Matsoukas (both Black women) to write the Thanksgiving episode:
“I told [Lena] from the get-go, “You need to write this with me and I’ll help you and we’ll get this in shape and make it feel like the show. But you’ve got to make sure we get this right.” … That episode, it’s just me and four black women, the whole episode. I joked with Melina [Matsoukas], who directed the episode, and Lena, “This is the most amount of screen time I’ve seen on any film or television show, with one Indian character and four black women.” How am I going to write that episode by myself? It would be offensive! You know? I guess I don’t have the gall of all those white writers who write for minorities.”
YES YES YES!
Oh yeah! “This” to all this! “Master of None” and “Jane the Virgin” are amazingly complex and nuanced, even when the humor itself is really big and broad. They are giving me life right now.
I listened to a whole podcast on Jane the Virgin and have it on my list as a result. Can’t wait to start!
I think some of this may be due to how we watch TV. With streaming you have more continuity so you don’t need to have instantly recognizable stereotypes so if someone missed an episode they can fall right in to it. I’d argue though Denise’s date for the one Thangsgiving is pretty much a bimbo air head stereo type in the one episode of Masters of None so even in something trying to be more nuanced you can still have instances of short handing character types to move the plot along.
I don’t think it is completely unrealistic though unfortunately to have people who are all being from the same background even in a place like New York be a group of friends. Sex and the City, Girls, and How I Met Your Mother were all white actors for the main cast set in NY. From personal experience of living across the river from NY there is a lot of diversity but there can also be a lot of people consciously or unconsciously chosing to only spend time with people like them. I think often this is fear of offending and a sense of safety more than a dislike of other groups. I have a really diverse group of friends and I’ve found sometimes when I introduce one to another they can be nervous like oh my gosh he’s blind what if I say something like see you later and offend him, or what if I say something homophobic, or racist. And it makes me realize that even people who may think of themselves as super liberal and progressive can become so afraid of saying something wrong that they only wind up spending time with others exactly like them. I think that it can feel fake too when you have a diverse cast (you see this a lot on kid shows) but that differences aren’t acknowledged or discussed. I like that Masters of None acknowledges that there are differences but that shouldn’t keep people from each other; a straight Indian boy and an African American lesbian can be best friends.
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