A series of brilliantly juxtaposed scenes in the second episode of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” artfully shows the gulf between American-born children and their immigrant parents. It’s all there within a simple interaction: the inability to communicate, the innocent ignorance, the guilt.
Dev, played by Ansari, refuses to help his father fix his iPad because he has to get to a movie. And he needs to get there early to see the trailers. Then, we flashback to the sacrifices Dev’s father made to leave India and come to the United States where he built a better life for his son. Dev’s father just wanted an abacus as a boy, and thanks to his sacrifice and success, little Dev gets a computer of his own. We see a similar interaction between Dev’s friend Brian and his father, who grew up poor in Taiwan.
As the “Parents” episode continues it touches on everything from an immigrant’s refusal to answer the phone for fear an accent wouldn’t be understood, to Dev trying to find out what his parents did for fun when they were his age. “You realize fun is a new thing, right?” Dev’s father responds. “Fun is a luxury only your generation really has.”
For those of us with immigrant parents, these scenes feel incredibly familiar — almost startlingly so. That’s because we’re not used to seeing our child-parent interactions on the small screen. One viewer tweeted at Ansari about how much she related to the series but added that the “Parents” episode was “not as relatable since I’m white.”
For many children of immigrants, this episode wasn’t just entertaining. It was affirming. It was finally being able to see the bedrock narrative of your life told with nuance, not stereotypes. With characters, not caricatures.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to the Parents episode of our show,” Ansari posted on Instagram.
“Parents” resonates with so many not just because of the story line, but the care with which Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang cast the series. Ansari’s real parents play his fictional parents, and this is a show in which parents-with-accents aren’t the butts of jokes.
“It was very important that we got these characters right because a lot of times when you see immigrant parents on television or film, they’re portrayed in this unbelievably broad fashion, and they’re just vehicles for very hacky ethnic jokes that are not real,” Ansari told NPR’s Terry Gross. “So we wanted these characters to feel three-dimensional and real. And we auditioned a few people for these parts of my parents, and when they read, they just didn’t feel like my parents. They didn’t feel — it felt like people doing impressions of Indian people.”
“What’s strange is doing that episode and working with my parents has increased the quality of my relationship to my parents IN MY REAL LIFE,” Ansari wrote on Instagram. “In reality, I haven’t always had the best, most open relationship with my parents because we are weirdly closed off emotionally sometimes. But we are getting better.”
The “Parents” episode showcases what’s actually a universal story: ungrateful adults recognizing the sacrifices their parents made for so many years. But finally we can see that universal story told through this particular lens and treating these immigrant parents with dignity and respect. While, you know, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
There have been forays before into the “immigrant parents” territory. Margaret Cho starred in ABC’s “All-American Girl,” a series that only ran for one season in the 1990s and focused heavily on cultural clashes between Cho and her Korean family. Fast forward more than 20 years, and the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat” depicts the coming-of-age story of real-life Eddie Huang and his Taiwanese-American family. “Ugly Betty” contained a story line in which the character played by America Ferrera discovered her father was actually an undocumented immigrant.
But as important as such shows were in terms of milestones and firsts, they were limited in scope. “Master of None” feels different. It’s a comedy, for sure, but there’s a depth to the emotion that feels fuller. (It also evokes the same kind of fuzzy feelings you get while watching “Parks and Recreation,” the alma mater of Ansari and Yang.)
Dev and Brian come off as selfish sons in one scene, but later we see them reaching out to their parents and sincerely wanting to learn more about their stories. And the parents aren’t built up into saints, either. Dev’s father eventually tosses aside a very thoughtful gift from his son. Everyone has flaws and everyone is doing the best they can while, from time-to-time, getting distracted by texts and iPads. Just like in real life.
My dad took off most of his vacation time for the year to act in Master of None. So I'm really relieved this all worked out. Tonight after we did Colbert together he said: "This is all fun and I liked acting in the show, but I really just did it so I could spend more time with you." I almost instantly collapsed into tears at the thought of how much this person cares about me and took care of me and gave me everything to give me the amazing life I have. I felt like a total piece of garbage for all the times I haven't visited my parents and told them I wanted to stay in New York cause I'd get bored in SC. I'm an incredibly lucky person and many of you are as well. Not to beat a dead horse here and sorry if this is cheesy or too sentimental but if your parents are good to you too, just go do something nice for them. I bet they care and love you more than you realize. I've been overwhelmed by the response to the Parents episode of our show. What's strange is doing that episode and working with my parents has increased the quality of my relationship to my parents IN MY REAL LIFE. In reality, I haven't always had the best, most open relationship with my parents because we are weirdly closed off emotionally sometimes. But we are getting better. And if you have something like that with your family – I urge you to work at it and get better because these are special people in your life and I get terrified when my dad tells me about friends of his, people close to his age, that are having serious health issues, etc. Enjoy and love these people while you can. Anyway, this show and my experiences with my parents while working on it have been very important in many ways and I thank for you the part you all have played in it.