Netflix’s ‘Master of None’ breaks the disability sound barrier, literally

master-of-none
Image: Netflix’s “Master of None,” Season Two, Episode Six “New York, I Love You.”

I’ve been a fan of Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari’s original series “Master of None” since it first aired on Netflix in 2016. Both American comedians with immigrants parents, Yang and Ansari deploy comedy in a seemingly effortless yet deep sweep of globally diverse but everlastingly human experiences and emotions.

You might know Ansari from his previous standup, or from his hit role as Tom Haverford in Amy Poehler’s seven-series success, “Parks and Recreation.” Yang was a writer and producer for “Parks and Rec.” Their collaboration on “Master of None” netted them a 2016 Peabody Award and a 2016 Emmy for “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.”

In a world of comic entertainment that’s still quite white and explores diversity through crass cracks, “Master of None” shines through with genuine compassion and attention to humors and sorrows of everyday moments that, for many, pass thoughtlessly.

It helps that Ansari and Yang cast family and friends, recreating moments from their lives into the thematic narrative. Instead of describing to Ansari (and viewers) what it’s like for Yang’s father to re-enter the dating scene in old age, the show takes you along as his father tries to decide which of the two women he’s dating he should break it off with.

I sat down with the second season of the show last weekend and found it even more delightful than the first. The show’s minutia includes a devotion to sound, light, music and staging not often found in comedy. The quips pepper a landscape carefully crafted to fit them. A spurious post-breakup mid-life move from New York to Italy to learn the craft of pasta making is met with a black and white scenic backdrop, classic Italian songs and stereotypical American perceptions of Italian culture.

However, the show is just critically sharp enough to remind you that even second-generation immigrants can be susceptible to cultural assumptions. The second season of “Master of None” devotes itself to brief yet discerning pictorial glimpses into the hows and whys of our families are the way they are.

With Episode 6: “New York, I Love You,” the show made sure disabilities were front and center in that community. It blew every other episode of the season out of the water, and the internet is alight with acclaim.

The episode opens with Ansari’s character, Dev, talking about a new film with his friends Denise and Arnold. As they pass a residential doorman, the perspective suddenly jumps to the doorman’s day and interactions with building residents. This includes micro-aggressive racism he cheerfully and uncomfortably tries to combat, a last-minute parakeet medication emergency and an ill-concealed tenant affair that ends with a wife dumping her husband’s possessions into the street.

The doorman’s colleague takes the narrative briefly and carries it into a bodega across the street, where it’s handed off to the cashier (played by deaf actress Treshelle Edmond, known for her Broadway work).

The cashier has lost her iPhone, something my best friend just did last week, and she’s pissed. And, the cashier is deaf, and that when the show steps off the ledge.

The sound completely stops. And Twitter exploded.

At first, there’s not even closed captioning. There’s just a man who’s not deaf, trying to buy a Capri Sun, Fruit Rolls-Ups and a Lunchables from a woman who is deaf.

Like a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, you have to lip read their words to understand the transaction that’s taking place on the counter and in the conversation.

Viewers on Twitter said they got off their couches, paused Netflix, checked their computers to make sure their computers were working. They were stunned. Even film and TV reviewers were struck.

This it what inclusivity really looks like. It’s stunning. Rather than doing what most films and shows have done by keeping the backdrop of noise when a deaf character is featured, you hear nothing.

She’s deaf. This is her world, and now you’re in it. You have to sit up, pay attention to her signing and read the closed captioning. And it’s normal.

The character has a miscommunication with the customer who tries to sign back and accidentally says that she and him are socks. She goes to a park where she chews out a friend for stealing her style after buying the same jacket she’s wearing, and then laments about the lack of sexual reciprocity from her boyfriend.

She then goes shopping with that boyfriend, and they get into a massive, silent fight about their sex life that those who don’t know ASL would probably breeze by but that catches the attention of an ASL-savvy mom shopping nearby with her kids.

It’s hilarious. It’s casual. It’s brilliant. It’s supreme comedy, and enough to probably win Wang and Ansari their second Emmy.

But more importantly, disabled viewers sat up and saw themselves in that moment. This is what representation looks like. It wasn’t pandering or infantilizing.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing get into couple’s fights. They can almost accidentally shoplift. And, they totally want to have good sex.

Not everybody liked it.

Many non-deaf people hate closed captioning, and some viewers reacted with confusion or frustration.

And that’s OK. Yang and Ansari could have surmised this would happen when they produced the episode, but proceeded anyway.

By deliberately beginning the deaf parts of the episode without closed captioning, they turned the tables on their audience. Much like my deaf grandpa, they gave non-deaf viewers two options: learn to lip-read or sign, or miss out on the conversation.

The skit wasn’t made for fans who can hear – it was made for the deaf and hard-of-hearing ones. And it consumed the majority of the episode, without apology.

And even better, they managed to include disability without focusing on the disability. So many times, characters’ storylines revolve around their conditions.

It’s like a warped version of the Bechdel test – try finding a disabled character who isn’t portrayed as isolated, sad or trapped in a narrative solely set in disability. I’ll wait.

Even in arguably good dramas like Breaking Bad, featuring Walter “Flynn” White Jr. (played by Roy Frank RJ Mitt III, who has cerebral palsy), the joy in seeing someone with a disability playing a character with a disability becomes a bit deflated when you see that the disability carries most the character’s value.

Try to imagine all the media people with disabilities constantly consume that doesn’t include them. Can you? I can’t, it’s exhausting.

I recognize that we’re in a better place in media and entertainment than we’ve ever been before when it comes to accepting disabilities. But we’ve still got a ways to go to make room for them.

It’s not enough to say inclusivity stops at having a disabled character on the show. That’s never been enough, but it might’ve been passing as acceptable in TV’s early days.

But now, in 2017, I have to wonder why entertainment doesn’t do this more? Why when a disabled character gets due focus, it’s still rare enough that people have to freak out.

I’d welcome the day when characters using ASL is normal, when closed captioning isn’t only mass consumed for documentaries and translations.

“Master of None” succeeds as a tragicomedy because you don’t know from moment to moment if you’re going to laugh or cry – but you know you’re going to connect with something real. And in this moment, I wanted to do both.

Many people are calling for a spin-off show featuring just that couple, and I’m counting myself as one of them. Some comedy can just feel like noise – but noise isn’t necessary for truly funny skits.

And ultimately, for TV this good, you don’t need to have hearing or knowledge of ASL to do what’s required: a solid, extended round of applause.

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