This year, we've asked 10 writers to pick some of their favorite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Inkoo Kang on Master of None's "Thanksgiving."
When Master of None premiered in 2015, the show added some twists to the semi-autobiographical comedian-sadcom genre, focusing on star/co-creator Aziz Ansari's romantic misadventures and racially tinged experiences in show business. This year, Round Two took viewers on a more whirlwind tour of its protagonist Dev's charmed life – from an extended vacation in Modena to talking a devout Muslim cousin into trying pork at a New York international-culinary fest. But in a season that channeled Italian neorealism, New York foodie culture and love, unrequited Wong Kar-wai-style, its best installment took place almost entirely in a wood-paneled suburban home: The Emmy-winning "Thanksgiving," a coming-out tale told over seven holiday dinners that spans three decades (hurtling through time rather than space) and a vindication of the series' inclusive vision and artistic aspirations.
Lena Waithe's Denise had previously been a fan favorite, largely thanks to the welcome swagger she'd brought to Master's happily beta-male spirit ("I can make a woman come more in 20 minutes than she has in the last six months," she once bragged). For those who question why a queen like her would spend so much time with a little prince like Dev, this episode provides the lifelong history of their friendship. But, as written by Ansari and Waithe, it's also something much more: a coming-out story that feels as achingly real as anything on TV this year, and a triumph of both monumental and personal storytelling.
Denise isn't a lesbian when the episode opens – or, at least, she doesn't know she is one yet. She's five or so, dressed in a pale pink dress with a matching bow around her mini 'fro, running through a living room filled with crosses and armchairs in plastic covers. Watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air alongside her is "her little boyfriend," whose family doesn't celebrate Turkey Day. Over the next 30 years, Denise figures out who she is – partly with Dev's help, partly with pop culture's. She gradually convinces her family not only to accept her sexuality, but to hope and plan for her romantic fulfillment.
In a post-Emmy interview, Waithe, an African-American lesbian, said that she had "never seen a black female character come out on television." The representational milestone that writer-actor accomplishes in itself is remarkable, but "Thanksgiving" is as powerful as it is because of the cultural and autobiographical specificity it pours on to the screen. It's hard to think of more potent madeleines of the mid-Nineties than a poster of A Different World's Jasmine Guy or Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." Little Denise's belief that Dev is black comes from Waithe's personal history, too, when she'd mistaken an Indian family for an African-American one as a child. And since this is Master of None, the episode takes an interest in the particularities of a friendship between a black girl and an Indian-American boy. "Both of you are minorities," explains Denise's mother Catherine (a quietly fiery Angela Bassett). "A group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far." But as a black woman, her daughter will "have to work three times as hard."
We see Denise work toward the epiphany that she's gay, starting with a rejection of another frou-frou dress. (Seeing herself in the mirror drowning in pink lace, the elementary-school-age child mutters, "Man, this is some bullshit.") She calls herself a "Lebanese" when she comes out for the first time (to her best friend), because it feels too weird to use the L word as a teenager. And since one of the signs of maturation is being able to see things from a parents' point of view, we see her worry that Catherine will blame herself for her daughter's sexuality. "Being gay isn't something black people love to talk about," an adolescent Denise explains to Dev. "And when they find out their kid is gay, [some black people] try to figure out what they did ‘wrong'." (Heartbreakingly, the woman has read her mother like a book; her mom does later wonder about her role in "turning" her child.) You can almost smell the stagnant bedroom air in as the two friends huddle together, year after year, hoping that her sexuality won't ruin holiday dinner.
Like Waithe's own family, the character's family is a black matriarchy, where an awareness of the biases against women and people of color influences the reception to Denise's coming out. It's notable that the resistance she encounters from her mother isn't generically homophobic, but born of love and experience. When she announces, "I'm gay" at a diner, Catherine sighs: "I just don't want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in the world. Now you want to add something to that?"
Parenthood always involves envisioning a future for one's children, and the greatest insight that "Thanksgiving" offers is that coming out necessarily involves a parent's loss of those hopes. The episode gives Catherine the time to bury the life that she wanted for her only child – what Waithe calls "a mourning process gay children have to allow space for." In perhaps the episode's smartest and most satisfying turn, the story of Denise's acceptance by her family continues two years on, so that Catherine can create new dreams for her daughter's love life. Less attention-deficient Instagram models; more bondfests between mother and possible future daughter-in-law over Denise's abominable slobwear and "RATCH" cap.
And the tone surprisingly stays fairly light throughout, peppered as it is with brilliant comic line readings from Waithe, as well as supporting actresses Kym Whitley, who plays Catherine's jokey sister, and Venida Evans, who plays Denise's cheeky grandmother. (Bassett, Whitley and Evans were encouraged to improvise during the kitchen scenes, which enjoy a loose-limbed relaxedness necessary in a half-hour with so many fraught situations.) Watch the episode again, and pay attention to the ever-shifting details, as the Watkins family change up their hair, clothes and interior design with the times.
Set mostly in a bedroom, kitchen and dining room, "Thanksgiving" is also a reminder that no medium feels more homey than television – a coziness that makes a sense of belonging from the shows we watch all the more important. It's a Master of None episode that offers exactly the feeling we all want from flipping through a family album over many years: A nostalgia for eras past, the pride of adapting to new challenges and the relief that, despite everything, things turned out mostly OK.
Previously: Better Call Saul, "Chicanery"
Next: The Good Place, "Dance, Dance Resolution"