Familiar stories told in a whole new context
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.”