‘Master of None’ and Serial Storytelling in the Binge-Viewing Era

Master of None encapsulates the storytelling shifts brought about by the binge-watching phenomenon.

When I was a sophomore in college in 2005, I was in a screenwriting class taught by my undergraduate advisor. Before the start of one class session, I enthusiastically described the “On Demand” video streaming service that my roommates and I had subscribed to that semester through our cable provider, and the world of content that it had opened to us; I think we’d just mainlined a whole season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The potential for the technology seemed incredible; the viewing experience was changing right in front of our eyes! Soon, almost any movie or series might be instantly accessed through a vast web-based reserve of streaming content! (This seems like such a quaint notion now, but I promise it wasn’t back then. Come on, you remember life before streaming.)

My professor shrugged at my suggestion. “People will always want to go to video stores,” he replied. While I conceded that the technology was still imperfect, I had an inkling that he might be very wrong. Yet I stood down; this was one of my favorite teachers, someone I deeply respected and whom I still consider a personal friend to this day. But a decade ago — this was still 2005, remember — I was trying to hammer out three-act screenplays and was being taught in my ultra-rigorous television and film criticism course that there was a distinct structural difference between a “serial” and “sitcom”, with distinct philosophical divides in the viewership and storytelling demands of those genres. Streaming delivery was an insignificant consideration in storytelling. That was just over a decade ago, but it seems like hilariously outdated thinking now.

This anecdote of my own phenomenological perception of the last decade’s shift in media distribution and consumption is an entry point to a more current, specific discussion on how streaming technologies and consumption models have completely unseated a number of assumptions, not only about the practical realities of producing and distributing media content, but of the industry’s own theories of what it might be trying to accomplish in terms of its business models and its cultural influence. Of course, DVR technology gave way to web-based streaming (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and their ilk) within another few short years, and it has been this latest development that has most radically shifted viewers away from conventional patterns of watching network and cable television, and toward personally curated media consumption.

This new way of consuming media — particularly television series, many of whose back catalogues were uploaded in their totality to the servers of streaming services — was dubbed “binge-viewing”, a term dating to the ’90s that suddenly exploded into ubiquity in 2013. Binge-viewing is now part of the common parlance among mainstream arts and media critics. Recent think pieces in places such as The New York Times and Slate bear witness to a new critical awareness of the phenomenological impact of binge-viewing. The critics A.O. Scott and David Carr discussed binge-viewing House of Cards in a Times video post (“The Sweet Spot: Binge Viewing”, March 2013). In the clip, Carr cringingly admits to spending an entire weekend gorging on the 13-hour first season of the show. Meanwhile, Scott searches for a categorical definition for the program. “Is it a TV show? What is it? You watch it all at once?” he asks Carr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, writing in Future Tense in an article titled “In Defense of Binge Watching” (Feb 13, 2014) references University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan’s work on “restorative experiences” when describing the soothing emotional effects of prolonged immersion in rich, well-crafted fictional universes.

By contrast, Don Ciaramella and Matt Biscuiti’s analysis of a survey by Miner & Co. Studio published in April 2014, about a year after the linguistic reckoning of “binge-viewing” and titled — and I’m not making this up — “America is Addicted to Binge-Viewing; Side Effects Include Missing Showers, Skipping Meals, Oversleeping and Having Nothing Left to Watch” makes the claim that binge-viewing (defined in the study as watching three or more episodes of one series in a single sitting) is an addictive behavior whose consequences include “questionable hygiene”, “neglectfulness”, and “insatiable appetite”. This seems a bit judgmental to me, and it leaves out several notable benefits of binging. What about “temporary relief of nigh-crippling existential dread”?

More recently, in a 5 December 2015 post under the “Cultural Studies” tag for The New York Times‘ Fashion and Style section, Matthew Schneier’s “The Post Binge-Watching Blues: A Malady of Our Times” describes his own “anxious, wistful, bereft” state of mind after binging through all ten 30-minute episodes of the comedy series Master of None, before realizing that not only were there no more episodes of the show to watch, but that it was uncertain if the show, which launched to consensus critical appeal, would even be renewing for a second “season”. (It has.) These critical observations reflect a real reshaping of viewers’ patterns of consumption as a direct result of the availability of streaming technology; furthermore, the rise of Netflix and Amazon as not only streaming content providers, but as suddenly influential content financiers and producers as well has made “bingeability” an important qualitative metric in grasping the aesthetics and narratives of new programming built for streaming from the ground up.

The question then becomes: what makes a show bingeable?

This is perhaps a multi-million dollar question for many media producers and executives, but there are additional questions worth asking from an intellectual and academic vantage point. As our collective viewing habits and interests continue to fragment and re-coalesce around instantly accessible niche programming, we need to consider the new aesthetic, narrative, and cultural ideas enabled by the binge-viewing era. I suggest that Master of None, the object of Schneier’s yearning, has been one of the first shows to creatively embrace the opportunity presented by the streaming model of production and distribution, simultaneously leveraging the representative possibilities of a de-centered media environment and exploring new, postmodern narrative structures that are suited to a binge-inclined audience. Co-creators and writers Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang use the show to directly address identity politics in the business of contemporary media from their distinct Asian-American perspectives. This is accomplished in several different ways by both the form and content of the show.

First, and most obviously, Master of None‘s cast — much like that of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt — inverts the ratio straight-white-maleness-to-Others found on most mainstream programming. Ansari stars as Dev Shah, a 30-something actor living in New York; as in Ansari’s own life, Dev is the son of Tamil Muslim immigrants from South India. Yang’s first-generation Taiwanese-American identity is represented on-screen by Kelvin Yu, who plays Brian Cheng. The rest of the main cast adds further diversity to this group. Denise, a friend of Dev and Brian played by Lena Waithe, is black and a lesbian (as is Waithe in reality). Arnold (Eric Wareheim), is deliberately tokenized as the straight white male in the main cast, but those familiar with Wareheim’s oeuvre as part of the comedy duo “Tim and Eric” (with Tim Heidecker) immediately associate the genially goofy Wareheim with a brand of radically queer juvenilia that leaks into his scenes in Master of None. Rachel, Dev’s main love interest on the show, is played by Noel Wells, whose whiteness has actually gotten some critical blowback and drawn questions of why interracial relationships on television still need to include one white person.

Challenges to close-mindedness in television casting are directly written into the show’s plot. In the fourth episode, “Indians on TV”, Dev and Ravi (played by Ravi Patel) struggle against the racist power structure of a television network that advertises a casting call as “open ethnicity”, but then secretly upholds the outdated notion that “there can’t be two” Indian cast members on the same program, lest it be resigned to niche status as an “Indian show”. Of course, in bluntly interrogating this matter, Master of None pointedly calls attention to its own brownness and its outsider position relative to major network television. The final shot of the episode finds Dev, Ravi, and their friend Anush (Gerrard Lobo) sitting together on the couch, lamenting Fisher Stevens’ brownface portrayal of Ben Jahveri in Short Circuit 2 (1988). There can be two, the shot screams at us. There can even be three.

At the same time, the show tries to avoiding wearing its burden of identity politics too heavily. In the first episode of the series, when Dev is tasked with babysitting a friend’s two young children (who are both white), he takes them to a frozen yogurt shop. One of the kids, a little girl, strolls cavalierly into the shop, loudly and bluntly verbalizing the identities of people she sees. “Black lady,” she calls out. “Chinese man.” Dev panics and scrambles to stop her, telling her “Hey, hey, hey, don’t yell out people’s ethnicities.”

Master of None also makes narrative moves that are new or unfamiliar within the conventional sitcom structure from which it borrows. While the show certainly does develop recognizable plots and character arcs, these are shaped and distributed across the ten episodes much differently than the conventional sitcom devices audiences have come to expect. A simple but telling example is the show’s opening title sequence. While visually consistent across all episodes, there’s no designated theme music. Instead, a different track is chosen to set the tone for each episode.

In episode one, a stylish French ’60s-era pop song by Jacques Dutronc sets the mood for Rachel and Dev’s first encounter (which leads to the somewhat awkward purchase of a Plan B pill); the second episodes titles are laid over the bouncy old-school hip-hop tune “They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, and so on. These musical choices — and the entirety of the show’s soundtrack has received a ton of praise — is clearly geared toward viewers who will consume the entire program in just a few large chunks, avoiding the repetition and monotony of hearing the same theme four times in a two-hour binge session.

Other, more significant developments follow in this vein. The show completely disregards the need for short, pithy character introductions that used to be a required (if corny and reductive) function of network teleplays, designed to “catch up” casual audiences on character development and story. Master of None, as a purpose-built streaming show, can do away with these signposts for the uninitiated. Rachel, for instance, appears as Dev’s love interest in the first scene of the first episode — a sex scene — then she completely disappears until the third episode. In this manner, the show expects viewers to become acquainted with the characters by spending prolonged time with them, trusting the patience and sophistication of the streaming viewership, rather than rapidly constructing and reinforcing easily recognized archetypes.

The second episode, “Parents”, is an even further departure from typical sitcom plot/act narrative structures. There is, in the background, the development of Dev auditioning for a movie part, but nearly the entire episode is spent with Dev and Brian in conversation with or about their parents and their respective immigrant stories. This is the second episode of the series, and it is basically a long, albeit thoroughly entertaining, diversion into the backstory of the main characters’ parents, whose earlier lives are presented in a series of flashbacks. The episode pivots around a lengthy dinner scene — Dev and Brian have taken Dev’s parents and Brian’s father to a Chinese restaurant, where Mr. Cheng instructs the waiter to bring them the “good food” that they only serve to Chinese people.

No action’s being advanced in this scene, nor is the episode driving toward a specific comedic crescendo. The audience is instead invited to casually spend time with these characters as they share family stories, to be charmed by them, and linger within the moment. The long, slow-moving tracking shots that capture the scene place the viewer shoulder-to-shoulder with the characters at the dining table. The scene — and the episode as a whole — becomes a restorative tangent, a block of character development that functions as its own stand-alone episode.

The parents scarcely reappear in the remainder of the series. Instead, the scene’s designed to immerse the viewer in the pleasures of this dinner conversation, to create an intimate and affective connection between audience and character. This is part of the restorative function of the binging experience, and Master of None‘s able to manufacture it before even 40 minutes of the series have passed, by eschewing plot, and trusting the audience to respond. The narrative arc of this episode would be unlikely or impossible on network TV, were it aired without the immediate context of the surrounding episodes. It works perfectly in a streaming series, where the episode can function more like a scene within a larger movie (it’s not that, though).

As a final example, Master of None offers up a bit of meta-commentary on the rise of binge viewing. In the third episode, “Hot Ticket”, Dev invites Brian, Denise, and Arnold over to his apartment to binge-watch the BBC series Sherlock. The scene depicting their multi-hour session shows this viewing pattern as a social norm. It’s not something for avoiding socialization, but an actual form of social participation created by the technological development of streaming. The characters gather around the relatively high-brow crime series for their casual hangout; this is contrasted later in the series when they arrive at the theater in formalwear at the premiere of The Sickening, a low-grade horror movie in which Dev had scored a part (although, as it turns out, he gets cut out of the final version of the film).

During the binge session, as the characters collectively gaze at the TV screen in Dev’s apartment, occasionally trading quips about Benedict Cumberbatch, the camera’s placed in front of that TV screen, showing the audience a mirror image of themselves. The characters, dug in for the long haul together, are watching-you-watching-them, which becomes an empathetic gesture on the part of the showrunners. Just as in the dinner scene from “Parents”, the viewer’s offered a position of inclusion within the show’s social group. The assumption seems to be, as we stare back through the screen at a collection of diverse, culturally eclectic 30-somethings, that we’re all just looking for a good hang. If you, the binge-viewer, have gotten this far, you’ve found us.

Michael E. Beebe is currently a Distinguished Dissertation Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he researches and writes on modern literature and culture. He lives in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.