Nothing comes from nothing

Master of None isn’t so much a show about Millennials as it is HEY EVERYBODY THIS IS A SHOW ABOUT MILLENNIALS. The opening is basically a New York Times columnist’s fever dream: two attractive young people who just met are having casual sex; when their contraception fails, they both simultaneously use their phones to look up whether it’s possible to get pregnant from the state they were in; they find conflicting information, argue about it, and ultimately decide to play it safe by using a ride-sharing app to go to the pharmacy and buy emergency contraception. There’s nothing wrong with doing something like this, necessarily, it’s just that there happen to be a bunch of things wrong with it.

The show takes a modern, realist approach to the typical young-people-in-New-York setup, which is to say it’s the bizarro-world Friends, which is to say it’s the real-world Friends, since Friends already takes place in the bizarro world. The characters hang out in crowded bars and on the street instead of in brightly-lit coffee shops and on inexplicably large couches. The scripting is low on zaniness and high on mundanity; the number of big laughs in one season can be counted on one hand, but incidental conversations are suffused with constant, low-level humor. Which, indeed, is much closer to the sort of experience that most of us have of real life, which tends to be lacking in elaborate setpieces and explicit punchlines. This isn’t to say that the show is always finesseful; its good intentions occasionally manifest themselves as cringe-inducing bluntness. At one point, Dev tracks down the “best” taco truck in town by spending half an hour on Google and Yelp (which itself is already overwrought NYT op-ed fodder, literally), only to find it closed, at which point he exclaims, “what am I supposed to do, go find the second best taco truck?” This is both verisimilitude-destroyingly blatant and embarrassingly zeitgeist-baiting. (It’s actually even worse than that. When Dev gets to the truck, he asks the guy about what he should get and what kind of meat is popular – as though he’d never eaten a taco before, despite his zeal in trying to find the “best” taco place. The writing here is so tryhard that it’s not even internally consistent.) In general, though, Master of None is calmly relatable where Friends is nakedly escapist.

It isn’t just a matter of style, though. Master of None takes an explicit anti-Friends stance in order to make a political point. Escapism is in fact sinister; the glib whiteness and soap-opera-lite saccharinity of Friends make it an inherently reactionary show, regardless of intentions (if any). In Master of None, by contrast, people have problems that aren’t cute, the world is grinding and unforgiving rather than enjoyably dramatic, and things generally don’t work out. This point is not unrelated to racism. Part of what racism does is shift the burdens of reality onto oppressed groups, such that white people get to live in a comfortable bubble of cluelessness. This is sickeningly blatant in the case of things like slavery and sweatshops, but even within modern America it is mostly not white people doing care work, maintenance work, and farm work, and it is mostly white people writing opinion columns1 and getting media awards2. Unfortunately, this specific intersection forms one of Master of None‘s more significant stumbles. Money basically doesn’t exist in the show, which means that, even though issues of oppression are directly addressed at times, they always come across as matters of convenience rather than matters of life and death. I believe this is what the kids these days like to refer to as “privilege.” In this sense, while Master of None‘s efforts are admirable, it ultimately fails to escape the Friends-zone.

Still, one does not wish to be overly demanding, and Master of None does have its points to make. Dev’s core friend group is meticulously constructed to defy stereotypes: the normal/boring one is Indian, the cheerful, attractive one is an Asian man, the calm, level-headed one is a black lesbian, and the weirdo is the token white guy. Dev’s centrality to the show is particularly important. Presenting an Indian man as an everyman is an explicit political statement – it frames Dev’s experiences as the experiences of normal people. For example, when Dev learns about the experiences his immigrant parents had in India and the racism they faced upon moving to America, this is framed as a typical getting-to-know-your-parents story – the episode is called “Parents,” not “Immigrants.” Because this sort of thing is a typical story; lots and lots of families have experiences like this. In short, Dev is presented as an ordinary guy without the practical reality of his ethnicity being elided. The show not only makes the point but performs the work of constructing people like this as “normal.”

That thing about money is still a problem, though. Dev’s parents are conventionally successful, so their experiences don’t seem to have really disadvantaged them in any way, and they’ve apparently passed quite a lot of privilege along to Dev, who lives pretty blithely, especially for a working actor in NYC. Dev’s reaction to his parents’ story is not the occasion for any kind of revelation, but rather a general “wow, how about that.” This isn’t wrong by itself. It’s still a real story that really has happened to people. It would be equally wrong to portray all immigrants as hopelessly beaten down and never successful, because that isn’t true either. You can’t portray everything at once. How do you get around this? You don’t; you go through it. You portray one specific thing, making it relatable though specificity rather than overgeneralization. Master of None is a perfect test case for understanding this distinction, because it gets this exactly right as often as it gets it exactly wrong.

The show does well when it sticks to what it knows. “Indians on TV” is about exactly what it says: one specific aspect of racism. Indians specifically are still way behind in terms of cultural representation, despite being one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet, as well as one that is becoming increasingly central to everyday American life (random example: a number of “Indianisms” have arisen out of Indian English thanks to everyone’s favorite ongoing world-historical crisis, globalization). Another instance of this same story just came up recently: the actor Kal Penn posted a bunch of racist casting calls that tasked him with playing the same goofy Indian stereotype over and over again. What’s really interesting about this is one particular comment: when Penn was asked to do “the accent,” he was was specifically instructed to make it more “authentic.” Naturally, this is as absurd as it gets; an actual Indian man was told to act like a cartoon character for the sake of “authenticity.” But that’s the thing: because this one aspect of media representation is so unbelievably shitty, this is what Americans actually think Indians are like. That’s why this is a real issue and not just a matter of demographic parochialism, and it’s why the episode’s opening montage of popular TV stereotypes, seen through a child’s eyes, hits unexpectedly hard.

The episode develops this critique in a number of ways. A sympathetic studio head tries to explain to Dev that a show with multiple distinct Indian characters wouldn’t be marketable; it would be understood as an “Indian show” (unfortunately, this same criticism applies to Master of None itself: the only episode where Dev hangs out with his Indian friends is the “Indian episode”). Which is in fact the situation we are currently in; Black-ish is “the black sitcom” and Fresh off the Boat is “the Asian sitcom.” So while this is an excuse, it’s a real excuse. Dev counters that this is an obvious double standard; no show is considered a “white show,” even those that actually are “white shows” in every possible way. So what we can understand here is that the current situation is wrong in a way that makes rational sense; understanding how the parts fit together makes claims of racism plausible. Indeed, the specific reason why such claims are so often blown off is that white people lack this understanding; they don’t understand how racism works. The specific incident that triggers the discussion of racism in the episode is unbelievably minor – it’s literally nothing more than a dumb joke in an email thread. But because the episode takes the situation seriously and follows through with it, it helps us understand how the little things are connected to the big things. It not only addresses a specific, underserved grievance, but also points to a broader understanding of the relevant social dynamics, and it does this simply by addressing its grievance well.

Interestingly, this episode also contains a subtle misstep that illustrates the gap between doing this right and doing it wrong. When Dev and Denise are discussing the situation, Dev tries to claim that black people at least have the advantage of visibility and advocacy via major celebrities, whereas Indian people have nothing. Denise naturally pushes back, but in doing so she refers to Oprah and Beyoncé, and she immediately recognizes this as an own goal: black people really do have top-tier media representation. As a casual conversation, this is all perfectly realistic and entertaining, but the way it’s situated in the episode, it comes across as an actual argument. I don’t think this is intentional, simply because nobody could possibly be clueless enough to argue that the existence of Beyoncé somehow mitigates the effects of racism on black people. In fact, this dynamic is what defines the present situation: black people are very well-represented in popular culture, and they are simultaneously being casually murdered and jailed in unconscionable numbers. The problem here is that the episode has to this point been trying to deal with one aspect of racism – media representation – but is now trying to make a claim about racism in general, and this does not work. While media representation is connected to other issues, that doesn’t mean you can understand everything in those terms. Most of life does not happen on the TV. This is the important difference between generalization and overgeneralization. The concept of the episode being about media representation of Indians is unavoidably a generalization – not every Indian person will have had these same experiences or understand them in the same way – it’s just that, if done well, it’s a valid generalization.

This is something you really have to be conscious of when you’re trying to do things like this. If you’re just doing a story about a particular character, you don’t have this problem so much, since you’re necessarily confined to that perspective. But when you start making episodes that are explicitly about Serious Issues and you start trying to Make Statements about them, you have to mind this gap, or you will fall into it. And, as it happens, the episode that deals with sexism locates this exact gap and proceeds to use it for skydiving practice. The bluntness of the episode titles makes them useful evidence as to intentions – the sexism episode is called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” an empty reference that signifies nothing. This provides a lamentably clear indication that the episode is going to try to address sexism despite not really having anything to say about it other than “it exists” and “it’s bad”.

The episode opens with a contrast between Dev’s night out at a bar, where he fusses constantly over trivial annoyances, and the same night as experienced by a woman, who gets creeped on the whole time and eventually followed home. This is somewhat heavy-handed, with overwrought musical cues that make it difficult to really take seriously, but in terms of content it’s all well and good. It makes the important point that, even though men and women exist in all the same social situations, women nevertheless experience the world as a phantom zone, haunted by ghosts that men can’t see.

The problem is that it doesn’t do the thing that the racism episode does to make its point felt. That is, the woman gets followed home, and . . . that’s it. Nothing really happens, and the situation is not connected to anything broader. There’s no attempt to argue that this amounts to anything more than a bad night out. In fact, when Dev discusses the issue with Rachel and Denise, they simply reiterate additional versions of the same story, which makes it seem even more like a random annoyance and less like a real issue. So the contrast that the episode tries to establish falls flat: a man had a bad night at a bar, and a woman had a worse night at a bar. You and I might understand the issue more broadly, but anyone who doesn’t is just going to see an overreaction to an everyday, if unfortunate, occurrence. In that situation, the conservative advice to just suck it up and defend yourself would actually be valid, because that would actually resolve things. The reason sexism is a real problem is that it goes beyond the individual case, which is to say that it goes beyond you. In the racism episode, we see Dev getting frustrated with the limitations of the roles he’s offered and pushing back; we see him discussing the situation with a friend who’s had similar experiences; we see him fail to make headway when explaining his case to the executives. Through this, we understand that this is a pervasive issue with substantive effects on real people. By contrast, all the sexism episode gives us is “creeps exist,” which everyone outside of Reddit already understands. Because the episode lacks a perspective through which we could come to understand the situation, it is reduced to simply mouthing truisms without connecting them to reality.

In fact, the perspective that the episode offers us is Dev’s – the man’s perspective on sexism. This . . . isn’t the worst possible thing. There are stories to be told about men coming to terms with the effects of sexism and their own unintentional (or otherwise) complicity and soforth. It’s just that this isn’t what happens. As mentioned, Dev’s big revelation in the episode is “creeps exist.” After that he just starts rattling off feminist talking points. This is deeply cringeworthy on its own; as someone who has spent rather a lot of time reading about this type of stuff, I find it personally embarrassing. But in fact it’s significantly worse than that, because what actually happens is that Dev makes these speeches in a bar, surrounded by a crowd of women who cheer him on as he does so. In fact, it’s significantly worse than that, because later on Dev’s female coworkers buy him a cake out of appreciation for him being the most basic feminist imaginable. I guess the bakery was all out of Meets Basic Standards of Human Decency cookies. Y’know, I’m conscious of the limitations of my position here. I try not to pretend like I’m any kind of expert or anything. But I’m pretty sure that a crowd of women cheering on a man while he impresses himself by spouting off a bunch of obvious shit is the exact opposite of what feminism is.

Comparing the resolutions of the racism and sexism episodes is instructive. In the racism episode, Dev ends up working with a new, younger producer who claims to be more “enlightened” than the old one, but who, in her ignorance (slash whiteness), ends up proposing a show with an even more racist premise – and once again requiring Dev to play an Indian stereotype. As mentioned, this elucidates the general dynamics of the situation. It illustrates the fact that racism is a non-trivial problem that can persist despite good intentions. Because few people hew to any kind of principled anti-racist theory, and because everyone’s job compels them to move product, racist stuff keeps happening, and ideology replicates itself despite surface-level opposition. This has been said countless times before, but the fact that the internet has everyone all super up to date on proper anti-racist practice and yet nothing’s actually changing is how you can tell that racism is a structural problem that does not depend on people’s individual attitudes to operate.

In the sexism episode, the exact same situation comes up, and what happens is exactly the opposite. Dev raises the issue of gender imbalance on the commercial he’s working on: all the women are in the background and all the speaking roles go to men. As soon as this is brought up, the director and the company all immediately agree to completely reverse the situation, such that women now get all the prominent roles. This time around, there is somehow nobody making the argument that this would be confusing and alienating, despite the fact that it’s a commercial, and therefore has much less leeway to be unfamiliar than a new TV show. There’s no structural pressure preventing a sexist premise from immediately being swept away at a whim. In other words, what the show portrays is exactly how sexism doesn’t work. Worse, it reifies the conservative argument that it is traditionally-oppressed groups who now have the real advantages, since they can win automatically by merely raising the issue of their identity. Of course, this is not at all the case. If simply raising the issue were enough, there would be no problem. In the racism episode, the issue is raised and addressed sympathetically, but the problem remains intractable. In the sexism episode, as soon as the problem is named, it vanishes into the air like a conjurer’s trick, like it never really existed in the first place. The whole significance of racism and sexism as cultural institutions is that they have their own internal logics and practices, such that, when you push against them, they push back.

Now, there’s still somewhere for the episode to go after all of this happens. Dev’s all proud of himself for getting a B+ in Remedial Women’s Studies 101, so the correct feminist action to take here is to kick him in the dick. That is, he needs to come to the realization that he has only scratched the surface, and that there remain real foundational problems that he has not yet begun to understand. He also needs to realize his own complicity in the situation, that sexism is not perpetuated solely by “creeps” but also by well-intentioned nice guys of the type that he himself is. More specifically, he needs to come to understand that he can’t fully understand the situation, that without the lived experience of sexism, he requires women’s perspectives (that’s plural) to make real sense of things. It is very annoying how close this comes to happening.

At the end of the episode, Rachel and Denise receive a minor social slight from some douchebag – the kind of thing the kids these days like to refer to as a “microaggression.” They complain, Dev blows them off, and they get pissed, which sparks a fight between Dev and Rachel. What needs to happen here is for Dev to come to understand that not all issues are as obvious as creepers or the pay gap – that even when something seems to him to be stupid and trivial, he still needs to respect women’s subjectivity instead of trying to argue over them. The episode gets right up next to the place where it needs to go, and then immediately falls over backwards. The instant the fight begins, the substance of the issues the episode has been trying to raise disappears completely, and we’re left with a completely generic Sitcom Couple Fight, which is resolved by Dev issuing a completely generic Sitcom Boyfriend Apology. This setup is the perfect opportunity for the show to get out of the standard relationship-drama mold and make the point that fights like this are often the result of real conflicts, that the “war of the sexes” is actually oppression, and it totally whiffs it. The only point that the episode needed to make goes unmade. Explicating the problems with reducing feminism to its effects on heterosexual romantic relationships is left as an exercise to the reader.

This is actually why “writing what you know” is not the right way out of this: it prevents you from ever getting out of your own perspective. The basic intent of this episode is correct: men really do need to be able to understand what the world looks like from a woman’s perspective, even if they can never really see it for themselves. But this isn’t a matter of disinterested anthropological investigation; it’s a matter of blood. Reciting the appropriate talking points does not do the thing that needs to be done. In order to do this right, the show would have had to make somebody bleed.

Indeed, the mere fact that there is a “racism episode” and a “sexism episode” is itself what the kids these days like to call “problematic.”3 Racism and sexism precisely do not resolve themselves into isolated, easy-to-understand occurrences; they are always present, baked into ordinary, everyday events, slithering through normality like snakes in the grass, striking when you least suspect. Bungling the sexism episode so badly only exacerbates this effect; again, it reifies the conservative argument that these things are lifestyle choices and not real political problems. And given the show’s blatant thirst for Millennial trends, it further implies that these concerns are only trends, that they’re the kind of things that overzealous young people will eventually grow out of. It presents these issues – the foundational issues of all human societies that have ever existed – as buffet items, from which one can pick and choose what one wishes to sample. The truth, of course, is the opposite: in reality, these things are forced down people’s throats, and the taste lingers.

Far worse, then, than the fact that the show handles its sexism episode poorly is the fact that there is a “sexism episode” at all, that this concern is raised and addressed once in complete isolation (like, I think there’s a term for this). To wit, Master of None does an absolutely atrocious job of handling its female characters. The only well-portrayed one is Denise, who is in fact the most interesting character on the show by a fair margin, but she gets no plot focus and relatively little screen time, and most of it is just her talking to Dev about Dev’s problems (again, I’m pretty sure there’s a term for the notion that women are only there to act as sounding boards for men). Similarly, while Dev’s father is the dark-horse star of the show, his mother barely exists. The real problem, though, is Rachel, a.k.a. “Dev’s girlfriend,” who is the focus of about half the season and whose characterization never advances beyond “Dev’s girlfriend” (this is especially disorienting due to the fact that she’s the best-acted character).

There’s a particularly jarring example of the show dropping the ball on this, hard, like bowling-ball-on-toe hard. There’s a scene where Dev takes Rachel to a barbecue restaurant, only for her to reveal upon ordering that she’s a vegetarian. Rachel is so accustomed to suppressing her own desires that she doesn’t even mention the issue until she’s forced to, and Dev is so self-involved that he doesn’t even notice there’s a problem until it flies in his face (in case it’s not obvious, this is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why confining the feminism-related content to its own single episode is hugely damaging to not only the show’s moral standing, but also to its thematic integrity). She gives him the “It’s Fine” deflection, and Dev has a delicious meal while Rachel basically subsists on cornbread. This is actually a really great treatment of a common, emotionally fraught situation – exactly the kind of thing that a show like Friends would either ignore or inflate into zany antics. It subtly raises a number of pertinent issues: Rachel is accustomed to having her desires casually ignored, such that she barely even registers them as desires anymore (she very unconvincingly avers that she “loves sides”), Dev tries to act nice but ultimately doesn’t care and is basically just focused on his own enjoyment, and of course society in general does not do a particularly good job of accounting for the fact that people are different and have truly divergent desires and convictions. But none of this is ever followed up on. The vegetarian thing is referenced like once, and the obvious problem this creates for Rachel and Dev’s relationship dynamic is never addressed even as their relationship is portrayed as being in serious trouble. Hence, this extremely provocative scene exists in total isolation from the rest of the show and absolutely nothing comes of it.

Indeed, Rachel barely does anything at all other than interact romantically with Dev. She complains about her job sometimes and there’s a subplot where she buys a couch. That’s about it. Even in the episode where she visits her grandmother, she bails almost immediately so that the rest of the episode can continue to be The Dev Show. And, I mean, this show actually is The Dev Show, but that’s exactly the thing: people don’t exist in isolation. When you don’t portray others as real subjects, what you have is not just exclusion, but shallowness. You don’t even need to go as far as arguing that Rachel should have had her own story – the weaknesses in Rachel’s characterization weaken Dev’s story. Patriarchy hurts men too.

In fact, the problems in Rachel and Dev’s relationship end up being the show’s primary focus, which means that this dynamic not only weakens the show overall, but cripples its conclusion. As they start getting serious, the stars in their eyes start to fade, and Dev begins to feel that he doesn’t have enough confidence in their relationship to commit to it. So the first problem is that we have no real understanding of why this is; the two of them only ever have generic Couple Fights about things like Rachel being too attached to her job or Dev being a neat freak.4 Indeed, this is the same problem the sexism episode has: by trying to address sexism as a general concept, without a perspective to hook into, it can’t actually get a grip on anything.

The racism episode isn’t about racism per se. It’s about one specific type of interaction in one specific circumstance. And it is because of this that it is valuable: racism against Indians is not a particularly visible subject, so the episode helps highlight something that most people don’t think about. It’s for this same reason that the sexism episode falls flat. Without a specific viewpoint, all it can do is fall back on vague handwaving in the direction of “creepy guys.” Nothing in the episode is capable of helping anybody, because all of it is just the same general noise that everyone hears constantly. In the same way, then, by trying to talk about “Millennials” in general, by assuming that there is such a thing to be talked about, the show fails to be about the thing that it thinks it is about.

So I suppose we can stop beating around the bush now. The only reason I have been using the term “Millennial” in this post has been to fool you. There is no such thing as a Millennial. I mean, this is pretty straightforward, right? There’s obviously nothing that every person born during an arbitrarily-selected twenty-year period has in common. But there’s a reason this type of analysis has currency, and it’s because it’s close to something that is actually valid. As the link explains, there is no such thing as a “generation,” but there is such a thing as a cohort: a group of people with a specific shared experience. And there have indeed been a number of significant social and technological changes recently around which have coalesced cohorts. For example, there are people who have grown up with texting, such that they see it as a normal means of communication. But there are also people who grew up before texting blew up, and only came to it as adults, meaning they see it as something different from normal communication. Similarly, there are people for whom Facebook was a major part of their high school socialization, people who have always been precariously employed and have never known what having a stable office job is like, and people who use ridesharing services every time they go out anywhere. But in no case does any of these groups comprise “everyone” within a particular “generation.” Estimates for the size of the “gig economy” are somewhat divergent, but they seem to max out at around 30% or so – in short, not a majority. These workers are a cohort and not a generation. Each of the individual things that we talk about when we talk about “generations” is actually a cohort; they can of course potentially overlap in meaningful ways, but in no sense are they simply various aspects of the same group. And they’re not even just different groups of “young people” either. Some young people get married right out of high school or college; some middle-aged people get divorced and then have to relearn to navigate the dating world using apps and texting. Some young people actually do get office jobs; some older people have to take ridesharing work to stay afloat.

So whenever you say anything about “Millennials,” you are ignoring these issues. To reiterate: these are real issues, but they can only be understood by addressing them as themselves and not as interchangeable pieces of a general trend. For example, another cohort is people who regularly read social-justice-oriented stuff on the internet, and therefore have a tacit understanding of the norms and terminology used thereby. Meaning all those times when I talked about terminology being used by “kids these days” were also lies, because it is in fact relatively few modern young people who understand or even recognize terms like “microaggression” or “privilege,” and of course older people are just as capable of reading the same sources and acquiring the same habitus. If you assume that these things are simply a property of “young people,” you are failing to understand what is actually going on. Significant example: one of the big thinkpiece panics recently is about something called “trigger warnings” and the fact that they’re coddling young people and failing to equip them for facing the real world and whatever. Except only 15% of college professors have actually encountered such a demand, so it is in fact the case that the vast majority of current college students are not facing this issue in any way (and that’s even if you assume that it is a real issue). It is only those of us embedded in the relevant social-justice-friendly media circles who understand these things; this is not a property of our generation, but of our cohort.

So it’s pretty easy to work out the rest of this. People will pick a couple of these effects and then try to explain that young people are “narcissistic” or “idealistic” or whatever, and we can see now why this is necessarily wrong. It is an overgeneralization: it takes things that don’t actually have the same causes or effects and don’t actually concern the same groups of people and assumes that they do, and is therefore bad analysis. Of course, not all generalizations are overgeneralizations. The condition for a valid generalization is the same as the condition for a valid cohort: when you have a distinct group of people who share a particular experience. Indians living in America and watching television during the same era form a valid cohort in that they all grew up seeing the same stereotypes represented; ergo, one can convincingly generalize on this basis. Women dealing with “creeps” do not form a valid cohort, because different women in different positions in society experience harassment and assault differently. But there exist plenty of valid cohorts through which these experiences can be analyzed: if you look at the specific experience of women in major urban areas being followed home from bars, then you might have something. Or you might look at female professionals being spoken over in meetings, or women who try to report acquaintance rapes to the police. It would be defeatist to insist that all experiences are unique and can’t be aggregated in any way, and understanding where the lines are is what allows us to do real analysis. When you don’t do this, when you simply throw a blanket over what you assume to be a homogeneous area of experience, what you are actually covering is nothing, and what you can justifiably conclude is therefore also nothing.

(This is actually sort of a major thing in feminist history. Second-wave feminism was largely based on the assumption that all women had a shared experience of “womanhood,” and this assumption was challenged in various ways, most notably by black women. The main historical precedent for this argument is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where she points out that her experience of womanhood is completely different from that of upper-class white women, and therefore from what upper-class white people in general assume it meant to be a “woman.” So it’s extra ironic that a race-conscious show like Master of None completely misses this point.)

Consider, as a simpler example, this article, which claims that the recent rap beef between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj constitutes evidence that “hip-hop is dead.” This angle proceeds from the assumption that, because Minaj is a extremely famous hip-hop artist, her values and behavior are representative of the genre in general.5 In fact, the opposite is true: it is precisely because Minaj is super famous that she does not form a cohort with hip-hop artists in general. Rather, her cohort is just that: super famous artists, i.e. cultural capitalists. So of course her beef ends up being based on who’s the most famous and who sells the most records; that’s exactly where the valid generalization is for someone like her.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a famous rap beef happening right now is actually indirect evidence that hip-hop as the writer of the article understands it is alive and well. That is, the fact that there exist super famous hip-hop artists means that hip-hop is a popular genre, which means that there must necessarily be lots and lots of non-famous people doing interesting and original work in it – which would include preserving and expanding the traditions of the past as well as creating new ones. The writer, who presumably knows something about modern hip-hop, knows this, and I know that he knows this, because I know the same thing despite not knowing anything about hip-hop. Rock music, you see, actually is dead in the popular sense. There are literally no non-legacy rock bands that are famous right now. There is, however, plenty of new work being done in the genre by people who are not famous. This includes those who are bringing back cool stuff from the past, those who are synthesizing old influences with new sounds, those who are presently ahead of their time, and those who are fully idiosyncratic weirdos. So if hip-hop is currently more popular than rock, this must necessarily be even more the case for the genre that more people are into.

The problem is that the writer has gotten his cohorts mixed up. He assumes famous hip-hop artists and non-famous hip-hop artists are all the same type of people working in the same situation. They’re not; they might be making similar types of music, but they occupy different territories. But working hip-hop artists do occupy the same situation as working musicians of other types. For example, the explosion of music sharing caused by the internet has meant that artists without major corporate/advertising support can draw from a wider variety of traditions, make more diverse and less immediately appealing music, and still find an audience and income (potentially). This applies to all artists in this situation; thus, they form a valid cohort. Surely, there are plenty of further distinctions that can be made (and I could also be wrong about this; there could be other factors at work which cause this cohort to not cohere), but understanding this dynamic and applying it with the correct level of specificity allows us to make a valid generalization. It is by knowing something (barely anything, honestly) about working rock musicians that I know that working hip-hop musicians must be in the same type of situation. As Nietzsche puts it, “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs.” He leaves unspoken the obvious prerequisite: in order to get anywhere, you must first climb one mountain. This is why Friends, which attempts to be a fully general show about people living in society, is actually about nothing (Seinfeld is of course the nihilistic embrace of this dynamic). This is what the concept of “escapist entertainment” properly refers to: the situation in which the thing you are experiencing has fundamentally no connection to the rest of the world.

So back to that TV show we were talking about, there’s a scene where Dev causes Rachel to miss an important flight because he wants to take a side trip and Waze assures him that he’ll be able to make it in time. The intrusive name-dropping here implies strongly that this sort of behavior is a “Millennial” thing; kids these days are impatient and reckless and they just rely on their phones to tell them what to do, blah blah blah. But none of that has anything to do with what actually happens here. Anyone could have made that same decision with or without Waze (P.S. Waze sucks). Furthermore, Dev knows that making that flight is important to Rachel, she explained it to him and they planned their itinerary around it, so even before he takes out his phone, he’s already being an asshole. Glossing this scene over with a kids-these-days veneer obscures the fact that the one and only issue here is that Dev is a notably selfish and thoughtless person. As a result, this issue is never addressed, despite it being a constant theme throughout the season. Everything that happens is treated as just “how things are these days,” when in fact much of it derives from Dev’s specific personality and is specifically his fault.

A contrasting example makes this even clearer. One of the events leading up to the climax is Dev getting fucked out of a movie role that he invested a lot of time and emotional energy into. This is a genuine fucking-over, his own actions had nothing to do with it, and it is correctly portrayed as a consequence of a garbage-producing society that doesn’t care about people and a necessary hazard of precarious employment. In other words, it is a completely different type of thing than Dev’s other problems, but they’re all lumped together in a general “life sucks” fashion. And this is why that generalization is an overgeneralization: because these are different problems, different things can be done about each of them. Some things really are your fault specifically, such that the solution really is for you to quit being such an asshole. Some things are interpersonal problems that aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but have to be worked out anyway through compassion and sacrifice. Some things are social problems that can only be addressed through political action. And then there’s the pitiless march of time itself, which is genuinely implacable and can only be accepted.

So the specific failure of Master of None is that it doesn’t climb a mountain. It gazes thoughtfully at various outcroppings, but it never puts its hands on any of them. And it is precisely this that becomes the show’s final conclusion. When Dev’s life appears to be going nowhere, his father advises him that potential by itself is worthless: it doesn’t matter what you can do unless you actually do something. It’s comforting to keep all of your options open, to imagine that they’re all real possibilities, to stay in the pleasingly abstract realm of generalization, but there are in the final analysis two options only: you either put pen to paper and commit a permanent, indelible mark, or you continue to stare at a blank page.

It should be noted that the idea of “committing” here is to be understood broadly; deciding to commit to one or more half-measures is (or at least can be) entirely reasonable. You can decide to use a particular talent of yours to pay the bills while you focus on other things, or you can choose to let’s say learn an instrument just for the experience, without imagining that you’re ever going to get good at it. Assuming that you have to go “all the way” with something or it doesn’t “count” is its own form of constriction – it privileges the idea of achieving something over the actual experience of doing it. And this is exactly the problem that Dev ends up having: he can’t be satisfied with anything unless it’s “at 100%”. What finally precipitates Rachel and Dev’s relationship crisis is Dev’s insistence that they each estimate the “probability” that their relationship will work out. The joke is supposed to be that this is the worst possible idea, but the numbers they come up with are 80% and 70%, which are extremely high. Having a minimum 70% assurance that something is going to work out should in no way be disappointing; it’s actually unrealistically optimistic. So what we understand here is that Dev is not actually after the goal of having a good relationship; what he is after is the 100% assurance itself. And this makes no sense, because a 100% assurance means nothing except in terms of what it is an assurance of. He thinks that being completely certain about his relationship would make it meaningful, but it’s the other way around: finding meaning in his relationship would make him certain that it was worthwhile.

This is, of course, meant to be a critique of “Millennials” and how they “want everything” and they can’t just “settle down” and be “responsible.” But, as we’ve discussed, this framing is not justified, because, to the extent that this sort of behavior exists at all, what it is is not a generational trend, but a cohort effect. And the specific cohort in question is one whose cohortness is based on privilege. It is not “Millennials” who are capable of and desire such things; it is specifically young people who a) can afford to, b) have no other responsibilities, and c) have no principles or convictions guiding their choices of action. In fact, there’s even a cohort that exists in direct opposition to this framework. One of the big trends in “new media” companies right now is unionization. This means that there is a cohort of modern young people who: want stable jobs, are politically engaged (in practical rather than symbolic terms), learn from history, and have chosen ground on which to stand and fight. This is the exact opposite of everything that thinkpiece writers imagine that “Millennials” are about. And these people also do not represent their “generation.” They are another, separate cohort.

I mean, you get that I’m annoyed as hell about all of this, right? Motherfuckers are constantly writing dumbass articles about “Millennials,” thinking they’re being all insightful, when what they’re actually producing is actual garbage on the level of third-rate fanfiction. And the people who try to argue against this are just as bad, because they make the same assumption, that there is such a creature as a “Millennial” and it has the same traits X, Y, and Z, they just argue that these are actually good things. The very basic and very obvious fact of the matter is that this whole framework is empty charlatanry and the only remotely reasonable thing to do is to fucking stop it.

So, uh, anyway, the show contrasts Dev’s situation with that of an older married coworker, Benjamin,6 who admits that there are plenty of days when his own relationship is barely at 20%. The reason this works for him is that he has chosen his relationship, so, as long as it’s still something, he has something. Dev, by contrast, has never made any such choice, so regardless of whether or not each specific thing in his life works out for him, he ultimately has nothing.

So what finally happens is that Dev makes a choice. The show misdirects us into thinking that Dev’s final decision is to pursue Rachel, priming us to expect the standard love-conquers-all ending. By subverting this possibility, the show frames Dev’s flight of fancy as the new thing that kids these days are now doing in lieu of pursing “traditional” goals. Rachel makes the same decision, but we have no idea why, because, again, Rachel has no personality. So rather than this action emerging from who these people are, it is imposed on them by the demands of the show’s intended messaging. Rather than Dev figuring out something he wants to commit to, he picks something to want on the basis of his ability to commit to it. In other words, the reason Dev chooses to fuck off to another country is that it is the easiest thing he can possibly do. It doesn’t require him to address any of his real problems; on the contrary, it is the one thing that allows him to avoid them completely. (It’s also a particularly American form of egoism to assume that the world is basically just a shopping mall of cultures for you to choose from.)

But while the season ends in the air, the show is grounded enough to allow us to put the pieces together. There’s one relatively subtle clue that provides unexpected illumination: Dev is a terrible actor. Like, totally atrocious. This makes sense, because he’s just a moderately attractive guy who got into acting entirely on accident, but this is never brought up in the show. In fact, Dev is fairly successful, as far as being a working actor in New York goes: he’s praised by casting directors and coworkers, and he almost lands a leading role in a new sitcom. I don’t think this is a mistake; on the contrary, Ansari seems to be intentionally bad-acting, and he does a pretty good job of portraying Dev’s acting as coming from someone making an earnest attempt at it while fundamentally not understanding the concept (a D-list Tom Cruise, basically). The situation, then, is that Dev is completely adrift and clueless, and so is everyone else, including the people who are actually presenting themselves as experts and professionals. Deskilling is more than just an economic problem. It makes people feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can actually do other than slot in to a socially-defined role. It naturally results in a desperate yearning for things like “adventure” or “true love” or, indeed, “meaning” itself – things that really do exist, but not as generalities: as particular experiences. Meaning is not something that is given to you by your surroundings, it’s something within you that you give to the world. But this isn’t just a matter of being “sincere” or “passionate” or “chasing your dreams” or whatever, it’s a matter of engaging with reality, going through facticity to get to a new place – a different physical situation. A society that doesn’t allow for this possibility robs people of their specificity, which, given that specificity is the only thing that makes a person exist as a person rather than an empty abstraction, is the one true crime.

Dev is just some guy; he isn’t fighting any kind of moral crusade, and he shouldn’t have to be. The world ought to work for people like him, people who are just doing what they can and aren’t after anything extraordinary. But it doesn’t. So, actually, Master of None‘s general glibness conceals a profound criticism: the world is fundamentally wrong. And this isn’t like Kafka or anything; remember, what’s characteristic about this show is that it portrays everything about young people these days in the most conventional New York Times-friendly manner possible. So if even that portrayal, the least incisive way of understanding the situation, is still fundamentally broken and riddled with contradictions, then the truth can only be far, far worse. The issue isn’t that we’ve got problems, it’s that we’ve got nothing.

So when Dev finally does make a decision about what he wants to do with his life, he doesn’t have anything to hold on to. He considers all the things he’s been doing so far, and concludes that none of them are any good, so his only option is to just completely fuck off and start over in another country. If we take this seriously as criticism, it’s rather unsettling: it suggests that our society is so fucked up that, when one seriously considers how to deal with it, the only possible answer is abdication. The only intellectually and morally honest course of action is to wash one’s hands of everything.

But you’ll note that this is only the case if we ignore Benjamin’s advice. That is, if the fundamentally broken nature of our world causes us to despair, this can only be because we are expecting perfection, and we come to realize that it is impossible. But if we look at things from that other side, we can ask a much more pertinent question: so what? Why should a lack of magic be considered a defect in reality? Why should the fact that things generally don’t work out prevent us from taking them as far as they’ll go? There are plenty of things that are going to slow us down, but until one of them stops us, we’re still moving. Since we can’t get to “100%” anyway, since the concept doesn’t even make sense, a lack of certainty should appropriately have no effect on us whatsoever. There’s no use mourning the death of a god that never existed in the first place. The antidote to meaninglessness is not requiring yourself to be at 100%, it’s accepting yourself at 1%. Rather than everything, anything.

It is of course precisely this criterion that Master of None actually does meet. It’s above 20% when it’s good and below 20% when it’s bad, but either way, it eclipses the Friendses of the world in the one way that matters: it’s not nothing.


  1. Guilty. 
  2. I’m clear of this danger for the foreseeable future. 
  3. I’d like to clarify that I don’t endorse this use of this word. Problematizing is a good thing. 
  4. The couples stuff is in fact completely insufferable. There’s one bit where Dev and Rachel are quirkily bantering in public and some guy gets really mad at how cute they’re being; it’s pretty funny, except that I don’t think that guy was intended to function as a audience stand-in. 
  5. So hey did you notice that the concept of a “genre” is also an overgeneralization, in that it lumps together a bunch of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and that anyone making blanket statements about what a genre “means” or whether it’s “dead” or not is therefore necessarily full of shit? Just checking. 
  6. H. Jon Benjamin, in fact – as a Home Movies fan, I find his role here as the voice of reason deeply unsettling. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s