Yesterday we published our choices for the 20 Best Characters of 2015 and Dev Shah from Master of None earned himself a pretty sweet spot. What’s interesting about the list is that Aziz Ansari’s Dev isn’t like the three character who rank ahead of him, and in fact he seems to exist on the opposite end of the spectrum, particularly viewed up against one Donald Draper. Jon Hamm brought us a massive character, on a show that was full of grand moments—some historical, some personal (and of course the show was at its finest when it managed to link the two perspectives, which it often did). Dev made our top five for, in a way, being everything that Don Draper isn’t. He doesn’t always know the right thing to say (or text). He comes from a certain amount of privilege, though his parents are immigrants. In fact, the flashback scenes from the “Parents” episode are probably more comparable to Dick Whitman’s early beginnings, than anything Dev’s ever experienced. These are two men and two shows that, on the surface, could not be more dissimilar. But like Mad Men, Master of None’s attempts to take on some of the bigger issues, were most successful when attention was paid to the small things. Racism is explored through a very specific lens, like Dev and his buddy trying to make it as actors in Hollywood. Sexism is addressed in a woman’s brief walk home from the club. This kind of treatment is what made the series, for some, so funny and so beautiful, though it wasn’t without criticism. For me, there was one very small moment in episode three that defined the comedic power of the show, and also highlighted a commitment to absurdity and variation in storytelling. With Michelle, AKA Princess Love, AKA Lil’ Funyuns, Master of None became of the 2015 God of small, but incredible things on TV.
But first, a moment for the turtle.
Whenever a show is really good, I fantasize about the day when my children will discover it, years from now. I imagine my now 7 year-old going to college and calling me one day to ask if I ever watched this show called Master of None. And he’ll show up for Thanksgiving break with some vintage turtle-in-the-briefcase shirt, and I’ll know that I raised him right.
The now-iconic turtle-climbing-out-of-a-briefcase text message conversation from “Hot Ticket” is the perfect example of what Master of None did so well—taking a big issue, like technology’s role in what Ansari may consider to be the destruction of all things romantic—and packaging it into something powerfully absurd. Arnold’s advice to Dev (that the image of the turtle is the one, proven way to get a woman to always respond to your text) makes perfect sense, coming from Arnold, and immediately solidified Eric Wareheim as essential to the group dynamic. But it was Lena Waithe’s Denise who stole the show in this episode, or rather, Denise’s voicemail.
When I thought about writing this piece, I went back to re-watch “Hot Ticket” so I could find the scene where we see Denise, after she’s conceded, and finally goes out with Michelle, AKA Princess Love, AKA Lil’ Funyuns. But I soon discovered that the scene doesn’t actually exist. Based on the hilarious voicemails, and the final conversation between Denise and Dev, where Denise admits that she has a date with Lil’ Funyuns later that night, my mind had conjured up an actual person and I could see her rocking a little black dress on this date with her boo. That is how much joy Lil’ Funyuns gave me—I created a scene in my mind where she existed outside of the voicemails.
And I know that I’m not alone—that is, I’m not alone in believing that Lil’ Funyuns, a character who never actually appeared on the show, became one of the best “characters” of this season.
Just when you think you’ve had enough of the absurd voicemails, and your body can’t take the sound of another Princess Love invite, Arnold comes back into the mix, and explains that he knows this woman too because “she DJs at my massage class… and she’s definitely little, and she definitely loves those funyuns.”
Similar to the turtle in the briefcase, this is a joke that reappears, brilliantly and briefly, later in the episode. Denise has her comedic moments throughout the season, but she really is the closest thing to a voice of reason for Dev and the others. As a result, the news of her accepting the date is even more hilarious. Practical Denise is going out with she who has three names? Granted, Denise is someone who makes it her mission to make other women come more times in one night than they typically have in six months—so she’s gotta have some humanizing weak spot. But the humor is spun from her explanation of why she decided to go on the date:
It’s a slick move on the part of the writers to casually negate the previous jokes we all shared at Lil’ Funyuns’ expense. This ridiculous voicemail character received the collective disapproval of the audience and Dev’s crew of friends. But she turns out to be the Lil’ Engine that Could of the modern dating world, and gets to spend the evening with the woman she’s been relentlessly pursuing. Denise may move on to other lucky women, but Lil’ Funyuns has won this round.
Like so many other captivating works of art, Master of None came down to the small details that stuck with you after each episode. Dev’s career isn’t exactly where he wants it to be, his relationship proved to be a bit of a bust, and in the end it’s these micro-moments that give the season a collective, big pay-off. I invoke Arundhati Roy’s debut novel in the title if only because I see Ansari participating in a similar approach to storytelling. In The God of Small Things, Indian history and British colonialism are the big things informing much of the plot, in the same way that immigration, racism in Hollywood and modern romance are the major concerns of Master of None. But a novel, or a film, or a TV series that takes on the big issues without obsessive attention to detail often diminishes itself. When I consider Roy’s text today, years after reading it, I think of the smaller moments, like Rahel and Estha watching Ammu dreaming, Velutha’s carpentry or the seemingly simply, but tragic trip to the movie theater—all small things that fit into the greater narrative, and a much bigger message about the lives of those labeled “other” for whatever reason.
It may sound like a stretch to compare one to the other, but the Lil’ Funyuns storyline was not just an absurd joke with no grander signification. Like Denise’s quasi-explanation of “redbone” to Dev in a later episode, there’s a real attempt to bring in an exchange between black characters that isn’t necessarily positive or inspiring, nor is it funny in a way that seeks to poke fun at and “other” a culture. Lil’ Funyuns is absurd not because she talks like a descendant of Sheneneh, but because she wants to take Denise out to a haunted house and/or go shopping for towels. She fits in perfectly on a show where turtles crawling out of briefcases is an actual point of conversation. I’d even go so far as to say that the writers complicate what might have otherwise seemed trope-ish, by giving her this DJ gig (where “she plays a cool mix of Eastern and chill wave”), and ultimately sending Denise on the date—even though we don’t get to see it.
Like so many other memorable bits from this first season of Master of None, Lil’ Funyuns’ voicemails will likely be forgotten as critics and fans debate the bigger themes of the show. But those greater issues—diversity, gender, sexuality and love—were presented by so many excellent comedic moments. Although very different in scope, subject and style, Master of None is akin to Jill Soloway’s Transparent in its ability to address societal issues, but simultaneously dodge preachiness with humor and believable characters. That the series can even be compared to the staggeringly great Transparent is a testament to its success; that Ansari has been hailed as the new Woody Allen is proof that we have much to look forward to (and far less a chance of being forced to separate the man from his art); that I just wrote an essay in praise of Lil’ Funyuns is proof that the absurdity of this great show is catching. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.