Master of None
The two most discussed episodes of Master of None’s first season were “Parents” and “Indians on TV,” the ones that dealt explicitly with culture clash and personal identity. Though the quality of those episodes varied — “Indians on TV” remains the best episode of the series, while “Parents” often felt arrhythmic and coasted on the delightful novelty of Aziz Ansari’s real-life parents onscreen — they both sincerely explored ideas crucial to most first-generation immigrants, something that’s still rarely seen on television.
“Religion” operates in the same mold by focusing on Dev’s (and in turn Ansari’s) Muslim faith, or really, lack thereof. In the episode, Dev pretends that he’s a devout Muslim in front of his religious relatives, even though he doesn’t observe prayer, isn’t fasting for Ramadan, and more importantly, he eats pork all the time. After tempting his cousin Navid (played by Ansari’s actual cousin, Harris Gani) into trying pork, the two skip Eid prayer to attend a barbecue festival, which prompts Dev to admit to his relatives that he’s not religious, offending them as well as his parents.
The episode opens with a sequence featuring kids being dragged against their will to various religious services by their parents. It’s a neat illustration of how religion mostly serves as a burden to kids who can’t quite grasp its cultural or personal value, and it’s also a microcosm of how Dev and his parents Ramesh and Nisha (Shoukath and Fatima Ansari) view religion differently. To Dev, it’s mostly been a prohibitive force and a reminder of his otherness, but to his parents, it’s a symbol of community and a guide to a fulfilling life. Aziz and his brother Aniz Adam Ansari, who co-wrote the episode, appropriately don’t privilege one viewpoint over the other, allowing them both to coexist equally as valid perspectives.
In doing so, “Religion” gets at something fundamentally true about the parent-child divide regarding faith: Many parents just want their children to respect their own beliefs even if they don’t share them. It sounds trite, but it’s a potent idea simply because religion is such a charged issue in America, despite its positive connotations for the majority of practicing people. Nisha takes Dev’s confession especially hard because Islam has been and will always remain a guiding force in her life, and she’s offended by his flagrant disrespect of her own beliefs. He tries to explain that he’s a good person and that abstaining from pork doesn’t negate that, nor does it act in opposition to her, but it’s not enough.
After two weeks of no contact with his mom, Dev finally asks his father why she won’t speak to him. Ramesh tells him that when he acts against his faith to their faces, it feels like they failed him. Of course that’s not actually true, but it still feels that way to them. The kicker comes when Ramesh lays it in easy-to-understand terms: “Look, man. You can drink, you can eat pork, you can smoke Mary Jane, that’s your business. But when you do it in front of mom, it hurts her feelings.” That’s a difficult argument to ignore.
Soon after, Dev picks up his Quran that his parents gave him in college and starts flipping through it. He finds a passage that speaks to him: “To you be your religion, to me my religion.” He texts his mother the passage and they start speaking again, mostly because she’s touched that he read the Quran at all. Crucially, Dev indicates that he understands his mother’s perspective even though he holds a different one.
In his recent Saturday Night Live monologue, Ansari joked about how the best way to end Islamophobia would be to change the superficially threatening music that scores Muslim prayer in popular film and television. He pointed out that Islamophobia doesn’t make sense on the paper because the God in Islam is the same God revealed to Abraham in the Bible, so alienating representation might be the cause of some misguided fears around the world. In “Religion,” Ansari follows through on this claim and ends the episode with contrasting scenes of Dev hanging out with his friends at a restaurant and Dev’s parents at their mosque, all set to Bobby Charles’s “I Must Be in a Good Place Now.”
Nuanced representation of marginalized cultures clearly has societal import, and while it’s unclear whether Master of None has that kind of reach (I have a hard time believing many Islamophobic people are going to tune in to show written and directed by a guy named Aziz Ansari), there’s nothing wrong with making a positive contribution anyway. As a person of color, I think too often people conflate “positive representation in art” with “quality art” when really they are two entirely different metrics — one has cultural value beyond the art, while the other has more specific aesthetic value intrinsic to the piece in question. Privileging one over the other, or consuming art solely for its social capital, personally doesn’t interest me. With that being said, the final montage genuinely moved me, precisely because it makes a specific point within the episode — that community and peace come in different forms — and it showcases Islam in a wholly safe and positive light. “Religion” is a damn good episode of Master of None on its own, and if Bobby Charles’s music helps some people evolve past their bigoted views, then more power to Ansari.
Jack of All Trades
• Dev’s conversation with his friend Tanvi (Lakshmi Sundaram) is the only really didactic part of the episode, but it’s saved by her funny story about how she and her husband agreed to a traditional Indian ceremony if they could play explicit rap music at the reception. “It was pretty intense when you guys came out to ‘Fuck That Shit’ by Three Six Mafia,” Dev says.
• In a brief prologue, young Dev is seen eating bacon for breakfast the morning after a sleepover. He receives a call from his mom who tells him not to eat the bacon and to come home. Young Dev considers this and then eats it anyway, as Tupac’s “Only God Can Judge Me” scores the scene.
• Dev to Navid: “You wanna skip Eid prayer and go to a barbecue festival?! That’s bad, even for me!”