If you stopped watching Master of None after “Plan B,” you might have written the show off as a sort of Louie-lite, an auteur comedy series about a male entertainer who is struggling to find happiness. It’s safe to say you should keep watching.
“Parents” is an abrupt change in course for the series. It’s also one of the most mature and heartfelt pieces of television comedy in recent history. Seriously, it’s special.
Ansari has become a more thoughtful stand-up performer over the years, using his specials to ruminate on race, gender and immigration. “Parents,” a story about the relationships between first- and second-generation immigrants, makes it clear that Ansari and Master of None co-creator Alan Yang are going to tackle some serious topics in inventive ways.
The opening sequence introduces us to Dev’s parents (played by Ansari’s real-life folks Shoukath and Fatima), his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu), and Brian’s dad Peter (Clem Cheung). In parallel scenes in each household, Dev and Brian refuse to help their aging fathers with simple tasks so that they can rush off to a movie, prompting each father to reflect on their respective journeys to the United States.
Dev’s dad Ramesh remembers leaving India, attending medical school, and overcoming a racist work environment at his hospital before starting a family. And Peter reminisces about starting his own successful New York City restaurant just two years after being denied seating at a diner based on his race.
“All our sacrifice is worth it,” young Peter says when Brian is born in 1984. “He will have a better life. Here, he will be able to do anything he wants.”
Cut immediately to an ungrateful 2015 Brian explaining that he can’t go buy his father a bag of rice because he “love[s] answering those movie trivia questions they put up before the show.” It’s a painfully funny moment, and one that humanizes first-generation Asian and South Asian immigrants instead of pigeonholing them as stoic, humorless figures.
It’s also the sort of moment that takes a lot of buildup to pay off, and the fact that this episode’s title card doesn’t appear until almost nine minutes in shows that Ansari and Yang are taking advantage of the freedoms that Netflix allows. The premiere relied on a standard sitcom formula but “Parents” ventures off confidently into underexplored territory.
There’s a B story in this episode about Dev auditioning for The Sickening, a “black virus movie” that will either star Kerry Washington or Colin Salmon, but it’s overshadowed by the dinner that Dev and Brian decide to throw for their parents to thank them for their sacrifices.
As Ramesh, Shoukath Ansari proves to be a breakout star in his own right—Hannibal Buress has already recommended him for an Emmy—and his repeated colloquial use of the term “man” is an episode highlight.
“You realize ‘fun’ is a new thing, right?” Ramesh retorts when Dev asks how he entertained himself when he was younger, and the delivery feels informed by their own father-son dynamic.
This is not likely to be an episode that makes you laugh out loud. It might even make you cry a little, like when the usually laconic Peter turns to his son at dinner and reports, “This is fun. I am having fun.” There is a deep intelligence to its meandering humor that will leave you smiling when the next episode starts even if you can’t immediately recall any killer lines.
If there’s fault to be had with “Parents,” it’s that it can sometimes feel a little too on the nose, thematically. But when it’s a theme that has rarely been examined with this much depth and this much heart, that minor shortcoming can be forgiven. “Parents” is proof that Master of None has a unique perspective to offer. This is a show with something to say.
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.