Like “Hot Ticket” and many other episodes of Master of None, “Indians on TV” has roots in Aziz Ansari’s stand-up. Way back in Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening he joked about the pervasiveness of white people in the media (“Are white people just psyched all the time?” he asked, after listing off movies full of white people, a.k.a. most movies). Suffice it to say, the underrepresentation of minorities in film and television has been on Ansari’s brain for quite some time.
Where “Indians on TV” succeeds is in transforming this insightful stand-up material into a cohesive half-hour of television. “Hot Ticket” was a half-hour that felt designed to prove a thesis we already know: modern dating is annoying as hell. “Indians on TV” starts with a thesis—Indians are underrepresented and rampantly stereotyped in the media—and then uses its runtime to explore it with an unprecedented level of nuance, all without sacrificing comedy in the process.
It’s the sort of work that Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang were uniquely positioned to produce in this particular cultural moment. They didn’t have to make this, but they did, and the end product is both culturally significant and hilarious.
“Indians on TV” opens with a montage of Indian representation in the media that hits all of the major and most depressing beats: Fisher Stevens’ brownface in Short Circuit 2, Apu in The Simpsons, the abysmal Love Guru, and, of course, Ashton Kutcher’s 2012 Popchips ads, in which he played a Bollywood producer named Raj who is “looking for the most delicious thing on the planet.”
Creatively, it might seem a little heavy-handed to open with this montage but it’s a necessary orientation for the episode. Members of minorities tend to be finely attuned to their own media representation in ways that people outside of those minorities would never notice. Sure, other people might have a general sense that the way in which Indians are depicted is not great but Aziz Ansari has spent an entire lifetime noticing—and feeling constricted by—media portrayals. The abrupt format switch is out of step with the rest of the series but it transports us directly into Ansari’s thought process in medias res and allows the episode to proceed without the burden of having to prove how bad things really are.
The story of “Indians on TV” revolves around Dev and his friend Ravi’s auditions for a sitcom called Three Buddies, and how they handle an intercepted e-mail from an executive who says that the network should meet with both and see which actor “curries our favor,” because “there can’t be two.” Should they leak it? Should Dev use it as leverage to get on the show or would that make him, in Ravi’s words, an “Uncle Taj”?
While they sit on the e-mail, the executive Jerry Danvers (Adam Grupper) takes Dev to a Knicks game as a form of damage control. The episode soars as the two spar with each other across their vast power differential, Danvers using his privilege to try to placate the young actor while Dev—uncertain of whether he should “play the race card” or, as Busta Rhymes advises him in one of the episode’s funniest lines, “charge it to the race card”—dances around Danvers’ obvious insincerity, poking holes in his logic.
“People don’t watch True Detective and go, ‘Oh, there’s that white detective show!’” Dev says.
At one point, Danvers tries to distance himself from the idea that “there can’t be two” by claiming that it’s about what the public wants to see, not about what he himself would like to produce. It’s an excuse, and Dev knows it, but the promise of syndication money is enough to make him consider taking the role.
That’s also the point at which you realize, if you haven’t already, that “Indians on TV” is also a brilliant meta-commentary on the existence of Master of None itself. This is a show that could never be on broadcast television, at least in its current form or outside of rare exceptions like Shondaland. An Indian romantic lead who is affected but not wholly defined by his ethnicity, and who regularly shares the screen with exclusively people of color? No chance that would be greenlit.
At one point, Dev, Ravi and their friend Anush are all discussing the Three Buddies predicament. All three of them are young Indian men. Two of them are actors. But all of them are different and distinguishable people, because that’s what happens when you present and normalize non-white characters as human beings. Dev’s a disarmingly charismatic pasta nerd, Ravi (played by the excellent Ravi Patel) has an earnest but intense energy, and Anush (Gerrard Lobo) is a hunky fitness buff.
And all the while that Dev and Ravi are talking about how there can’t be two Indian actors on one show, there are three Indian actors on Master of None, all with speaking roles, sharing a screen for five minutes with no white people in sight. It’s not just clever or subversive, it’s actually revolutionary, even though something so basic shouldn’t have to be so powerful.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.