Fa­mil­iar sto­ries told in a whole new con­text


The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - ELAHE IZADI

The “Reli­gion” episode in the lat­est sea­son of “Mas­ter of None” kicks off with a sweet, funny and to­tally re­lat­able se­ries of scenes: Chris­tian, Hindu and Jewish kids all com­plain­ing to par­ents about hav­ing to go to their reg­u­lar re­li­gious ser­vices.

Then we see Aziz An­sari’s char­ac­ter, Dev Shah, as a kid who gets his first taste of ba­con at a friend’s house. When his mom calls the house and tells her son “we’re Mus­lim — we’re not al­lowed to eat pork,” lit­tle Dev hes­i­tates. But he can’t re­sist. Dev takes a gi­ant bite as Tu­pac’s “Only God Can Judge Me” be­gins to play.

This is the kind of treat­ment we’ve come to ex­pect from the crit­i­cally ac­claimed Net­flix se­ries cocre­ated by An­sari and Alan Yang. “Mas­ter of None” presents univer­sal sto­ries within spe­cific con­texts that we rarely see on film or TV. The re­sult is re­fresh­ing, pre­cisely be­cause it is nor­mal and grounded in re­al­ity.

“We had this main char­ac­ter whose par­ents are Mus­lim, and comes from a Mus­lim her­itage, and that’s a rare thing in tele­vi­sion and in movies,” Yang said in an in­ter­view. “Typ­i­cally when you see Mus­lims de­picted, they’re ter­ror­ists about to bomb some­body, and there’s scary mu­sic play­ing. So that was part of it, but not rea­son enough” to do the episode.

Yang said the show’s writ­ers had long wanted to ex­plore reli­gion: “We kept com­ing back to this. It should be funny, a specif­i­cally funny, re­lat­able thing.”

The re­sult is the third episode in the sec­ond sea­son, re­leased ear­lier this month, in which Dev strug­gles with whether to eat pork in front of his par­ents, pre­tends to fast dur­ing Ra­madan for his su­per-de­vout rel­a­tives and in­tro­duces a younger cousin to pulled pork. And just like the first sea­son’s stand­out “Par­ents” episode, the premise for this one came from a real-life ex­pe­ri­ence.

“My brother de­cided to eat pork in front of my par­ents, and my mom got re­ally up­set,” said Aniz An­sari, Aziz’s brother and “Reli­gion” cowriter. “We kind of had that ini­tial ker­nel of an idea, and we thought the pork story is an in­ter­est­ing way to head into such a se­ri­ous, heavy sub­ject.”

Fo­cus­ing on Dev’s ap­proach to reli­gion served as “a jump­ing off point to ‘Let’s talk about how this ac­tu­ally im­pacts your life, and what’s the emo­tional story there?’” Yang said. “It isn’t re­ally spe­cific to a reli­gion — so not so much Ju­daism or Catholi­cism — it’s about how you in­ter­act with your par­ents and how much lee­way they give you, and how much of your­self you give to them.”

We don’t get a clear-cut an­swer from the show, but it does strive for a mu­tual un­der­stand­ing. “The more open-minded you can be, the bet­ter,” Yang said. “One of the un­der­cur­rents that runs through­out the show is just a cu­rios­ity about other peo­ple and other peo­ple’s lives. That doesn’t mean we want to force-feed em­pa­thy down peo­ple’s throats.”

The episode drops lit­tle nuggets about grow­ing up Mus­lim in Amer­ica, like when Dev says he once thought his par­ents were tak­ing him to see Jim Car­rey’s “The Mask” in­stead of to the mosque (again, some­thing Aniz said he ex­pe­ri­enced as a kid). And there’s def­i­nitely no scary mu­sic here — in­stead we hear the lovely Bobby Charles track “I Must Be in a Good Place Now” dur­ing a mon­tage that in­cludes Dev’s par­ents pray­ing and hang­ing out with friends at the mosque. (The mon­tage was “one of my favourite things this sea­son,” Yang said.)

When “Mas­ter of None” first de­buted in Net­flix in 2015, fans and crit­ics lav­ished praise on the se­ries for the way it pre­sented di­ver­sity. The char­ac­ters of dif­fer­ent races, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences were just be­ing them­selves on screen. No big deal was made of it, and in a tele­vi­sion land­scape that sel­dom por­trayed such a friend group, that’s what made it kind of a big deal.

The first sea­son’s “Par­ents” episode, which show­cased the gulf be­tween im­mi­grants and their Amer­i­can-born kids with hu­man­ity and hu­mour, was es­pe­cially af­firm­ing for view­ers who had grown up watch­ing TV shows that didn’t re­flect their ex­pe­ri­ences. “Reli­gion” strikes a sim­i­lar chord, and it hap­pens to come at a par­tic­u­larly fraught time.

In the time be­tween the show’s first and sec­ond sea­son, Don­ald Trump called for “a to­tal and com­plete shut­down of Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States,” be­came the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee and then was elected pres­i­dent. And while Aziz isn’t re­li­gious and pre­vi­ously didn’t talk much pub­licly about that as­pect of his iden­tity, he’s be­come more vo­cal about such rhetoric and Is­lam­o­pho­bia.

His “Satur­day Night Live” mono­logue in­cluded jokes about hate crimes and the de­pic­tion of Mus­lims on TV. In a New York Times Op-Ed, “Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Fam­ily,” Aziz wrote that peo­ple in Amer­i­can cul­ture as­so­ciate “Mus­lim” less with “Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar or the kid who left the boy band One Di­rec­tion” than with “a scary ter­ror­ist char­ac­ter from ‘Home­land’ or some mon­ster from the news.”

“Mas­ter of None” writ­ers didn’t sud­denly de­cide Dev’s char­ac­ter was from a Mus­lim fam­ily. Some view­ers posted the­o­ries on­line dis­sect­ing Dev’s name, spec­u­lat­ing the char­ac­ter didn’t come from a Mus­lim fam­ily. To this, Aniz said that peo­ple were “be­ing too sleuth-y for their own good.” (In the show’s canon, Dev short­ened his last name to be an ac­tor, Aniz added.)

Dev was al­ways based on Aziz. And his par­ents, like the char­ac­ters they play on the show, are de­vout Mus­lims. “There’s all these kind of mis­guided de­pic­tions of Is­lam and Mus­lim peo­ple in me­dia, film and TV, and we thought it was funny we had a char­ac­ter on our show that my dad plays, who is a clown, just a big goof­ball that ev­ery­one loves,” Aniz said.

The show’s writ­ers were able to fur­ther de­velop those char­ac­ters this sea­son. “It helped peo­ple get to know the char­ac­ters of the par­ents in Sea­son 1 and de­velop feel­ing and a fond­ness for them,” Aniz added.

“Reli­gion” was writ­ten a year ago, but one of the fi­nal scenes was filmed the day after Elec­tion Day. Aniz said the writ­ers talked about whether they should try to ad­dress the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate and rhetoric in the na­tional dis­course. They even tin­kered with the idea of in­clud­ing a mon­tage show­cas­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia and racism.

They ended up scrap­ping the idea, Aniz said. “There’s ways of try­ing to ad­dress that kind of hate and rhetoric head on, but that’s not what we’re try­ing to do.”

“For us, the most con­struc­tive and fun­da­men­tal way to ap­proach that prob­lem through the show is to just show Mus­lim peo­ple on TV be­ing nor­mal peo­ple,” he said.

Plus, many view­ers are aware of the wider con­text with­out hav­ing to spell it out, Aniz said.

“We know (some) peo­ple hate Mus­lim peo­ple,” he added. What the show is try­ing to ad­dress is “this is all univer­sal. We all share these ex­pe­ri­ences. That’s so much more a pow­er­ful, im­por­tant mes­sage than re­hash­ing this hate.”


Aziz An­sari as Dev Shah in “Mas­ter of None,” now in its sec­ond sea­son on Net­flix.


An­sari’s own par­ents, Shoukath and Fa­tima An­sari, reprise their roles as Dev’s par­ents, who feel shamed by their son’s un­bri­dled pas­sion for pork, de­spite their Mus­lim be­liefs.


Alessan­dra Mas­tronardi is Dev’s (Aziz An­sari) un­re­quited crush, Francesca, in “Mas­ter of None.”

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