An appreciation of Aziz Ansari’s ‘Parents’ (and our own)
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“Why don’t the dings transfer automatically?”
No answer dare suffice. Explaining technology to a curious parent—in this instance a father trying to unravel the whimsies of the iPad calendar—is a universally uphill conversation, one that unfailingly leads to impious under-the-breath mutterings. This is but one of many targets expertly bullseyed by Aziz Ansari in his insightful Netflix show, Master Of None, a deceptively smart series that tackles a question nobody asked: What if Albert Brooks was an Indian guy today? (Turns out we’d been thirsting for the answer a long while.)
This particular episode, Parents, written by Ansari and Alan Yang, won an Emmy this week for outstanding writing for a comedy series, and deserves serious applause. It is an affectionate and incisive portrayal of immigrant life, explored with a casual ease hitherto unseen across the mainstream entertainment of America, country of settlers. A momentous, great episode, it is a triumph of writing and execution, that can be consumed free of the series itself—even though it shouldn’t be, since, following this second episode, the show keeps aiming higher and hitting harder.
In the episode, buddies Dev (Ansari) and Brian (Kelvin Yu) each blow off tasks given by their fathers in order to reach a movie on time. Before time, to be precise. It is the fifteenth X-Men movie, and one wants to watch the trailers while the other likes the pre-movie trivia questions. They end up going to see Dev’s dad and, after finding out a little about his backstory, decide to take their parents out to dinner. This, the boys declare, is in order to do something nice for them, and to find out more about their lives. The results are simple, believable and all too beautiful.
There is far too much to love here, from the evocative old-school flashbacks that—while riffing off cliché—are too warmly assembled to be a gag, to the dramatic way these stories of hardship and survival contrast with the kids and their decidedly first world problems. Dev, auditioning for the part of a scientist in a movie referred to (without irony) as a “black virus movie” is yelling absurdly about an apocalypse in a coffee shop, after having lucked randomly into the acting business because of casting tokenism. The idea of how far-removed—and, by extension, hard to fathom—this is to Dev’s father, who worked in a zipper factory for two years in order to earn money for medical school, demands no emphasis.
The histories of the immigrant parents are predictably varied coming from different worlds and cultures, but the intersections are natural. Both Brian’s dad and Dev’s mother remember being flustered by the phone, alarmed by how fast Americans talk. America might have been the land of dreams, but when Dev’s mother arrived, she spent the first day alone and crying. This revelation is made matter-of-factly when she’s asked what they did for fun when they got to America. “You realise fun is a new thing, right?” Dev’s father asks. “Fun is a luxury only your generation really has.”
This isn’t true, of course, but to a parent it can often feel that way. Their first-generation sons, meanwhile, comparing them to demonstrative “crazy nice” white folks, feel emotionally withdrawn from their own parents. This fact, that we’re automatically more patient and less judgemental toward other people’s parents, is highlighted in the scene immediately after, where Dev’s dad chooses to ask Brian to forward him a video. (“I like Brian,” he says defiantly when Dev, stung, wonders why he wasn’t asked.)
Intensely self-aware, the show includes dialogue about the shared struggle that makes up a part of the immigrant experience, and—in a brilliant casting move—Ansari (who also directs this episode) gets his own parents Shoukath and Fatima to play his character’s parents, thus piling on the verisimilitude and finding a wealth of real-life details, from his mother’s deadpan delivery to his father’s twinkly-eyed love for commercial American phrases like ‘super-special.’
For all this meat, Parents is also plain hilarious. My top moment is when the elders start a text-message group the morning after dinner to make fresh plans. Even as both sons type out panicked excuses, an accidentally-added fellow also called Brian leaps aboard—“Brian Donkers says ‘I’m in’”—if only to emphasise how easily we get along with other parents. At its heart, this clever, perceptive Master Of None episode serves as a reminder to call our own, to recommend this episode to them, and ask them a question or two. Even if we know the answer already. Sometimes all a father wants is the chance to say ‘I told you so’.
Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen