“Old People” is a spiritual successor to “Parents.” Like that series highlight, it’s an exploration of intergenerational family dynamics told over the course of a fancy dinner—this time, a red sauce feast at Bamonte’s with Rachel’s grandma, Carol (Lynn Cohen). The parallel is a bit unfortunate as “Old People” suffers in comparison to the excellent “Parents” but, thanks to a sharp performance from the 82-year-old (!) Cohen, it has its own quiet charms.
At the start of the episode, Dev and Arnold make plans to visit the latter’s grandpa to hear more of his riveting war stories. This conversation is followed by—of course—a smash cut to the man’s funeral. The experience inspires Dev to ask Rachel about Carol, and to tag along on a visit to her retirement home. But when Rachel gets called away to deal with a drugged-up musician who is hallucinating right before he’s supposed to play Fallon, Dev ends up staying behind and breaking Carol out of the home for a night on the town.
With a plot devoid of tension, “Old People” relies on tiny touches to move the episode along. There’s Dev and Arnold’s heartwarming hug at the funeral, Carol’s spot-on retirement home paranoia (“He steals our phone chargers, I know it,” she says of an orderly), and Dev’s cute attempt to cover up the true story of how he met Rachel (“We met at a dance—a formal dance,” he lies).
As Arnold, Eric Wareheim proves himself capable of having on-screen chemistry with his departed grandfather’s robotic therapy seal, which is no small feat. It’s in this episode, too, that it becomes clear how much of an asset Arnold has been to the series, which needs a big-hearted giant to balance out Dev’s more boisterous energy.
But it’s Cohen as Carol who steals the show. You might have seen her as Magda on Sex and the City or as a judge on any number of Law & Order episodes in the ‘90s, but Master of None gives her a half-hour spotlight, and she seizes it. The part is perfectly-written to avoid both grandma stereotypes and the “cool grandma” hypercorrection for those same stereotypes. She’s not racist, for example, but she’s still obsessed with Blacklist. She has liberal sexual attitudes, but she’s still very concerned about what the hell it is her granddaughter actually does for a living. Cohen’s performance is excellent, perhaps the best in the series behind Claire Danes in “The Other Man.”
It’s rare, too, for a comedy to treat an elderly person like a human being—old age, like weight, is one of those physical traits that is still presented as if it were inherently funny—so Master of None once again gets extra points for its empathy.
The downfall of “Old People” is the Dev-Rachel relationship, which continues to feel more like a narrative necessity than a natural outgrowth of their characters. The opening chat between Dev and Rachel about each other’s grandparents is almost painfully polite, given the amount of time they’re supposed to have spent together by this point. And it’s telling that the episode only takes off after Rachel leaves to deal with her work situation, which is not a slight to Noël Wells herself, who is a terrific performer, but to the way her character is written.
Perhaps the problem is this: Master of None has given us plenty of little glimpses into the lives of supporting cast—Arnold and Brian making aquarium plans together, Denise having sexual adventures, Arnold looking for affection from his father—but Rachel still feels like a character who exists solely inside of Dev’s ecosystem. Perhaps that’s intended to be indicative of trouble ahead, but, for now, Rachel continues to feel not as fully fleshed out as she should be, given how foundational she is to the narrative of the series.
But that’s a minor knock against an episode that plays to several of the series’ strengths: deft comic touches, unexpected humanization, and Eric Wareheim acting silly.
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.