TV is often at its best when straying from its main plotlines.
Last Friday, streaming networks gave us a double-header of unique, binge-worthy comedies: Amazon Studios's adaptation of I Love Dick from Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins, and Netflix's second season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's Master of None. These series are wildly different at their core, centered on strong and infectious protagonists who draw viewers into their lives. But in each of these generally good seasons, the episodes that stray away from focusing on those protagonists stand out the most.
In I Love Dick, which is adapted from Chris Kraus's popular memoir-fiction book, the aptly titled "A Short History of Weird Girls," is a welcome deviation from the show's focus. This is largely because of its main character. Chris (the irresistible Kathryn Hahn) is a complicated woman, an "unlikable" female character, and one who swings between talking about art (and Dick) in a way that makes you nod along—that is, before she starts talking about art (and Dick) in a way that makes you roll your eyes so hard they hurt. This is not necessarily a criticism, but she can be A Lot in a way that you want to separate yourself, just for a bit, before you come running back in. In a similar way, her obsession with Dick can be A Lot (as well as, at times, uncomfortably familiar), so to feature other women telling their Dick stories for an episode is almost masterful.
In "A Short History," Chris is still there, and her brief vignette marks a series high, displaying raw honesty about the curiosity and sexuality of young and teenage girls. She details her childhood habits of humping a stuffed animal, fantasizing about Jesus, and wanting desperately to "fuck anybody, male or female" in high school.
Then, the episode shifts to three other women in Marfa, Texas, and it's exceptional. There's the queer, butch Devon (a standout character played by Roberta Colindrez) whose infatuation with Dick is entirely different than Chris's; it is not about wanting Dick, but it's about wanting to be him. "I knew I wanted to grow up to be you," Devon says, wanting to adopt his cowboy boots, swagger, and way with women. But it's not ideal: Dick sleeps with her mother, and she's later crushed by a girlfriend, eventually dropping out of college and retreating home—an un-Dick-like move.
Paula (Lily Mojekwu) expresses her distaste for labels and the concrete: "The first day I learned what masturbation was, I actually didn't want to do it anymore. Naming it was literally the least sexy thing I could imagine." That distaste draws her to Dick's untitled artwork, which only leads her to be disappointed and distanced from Dick IRL. And there's the coolly detached Toby (India Menuez), who talks about her obsession and studies in porn, how men reacted to her studies, and how this motivation of sorts drives her to become better than Dick, telling him quite simply, "Your time is running out."
Seeing Dick through these three women provides a necessary outsider's perspective into Chris's obsession. Through them, we can understand more of why Chris is immediately drawn to him—but also more of why she shouldn't be.
The smaller episodes of Master of None's second season typically work better than those that feed into the overall arc, such as "Religion," or "New York, I Love You"—but the biggest standout is "Thanksgiving," a beautiful coming-out story that manages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming at once. As Dev's smart, take-no-shit best friend, Denise (the wonderful Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the episode based on her own experiences) has been an enigmatic character from day one, as well as someone who's mostly existed on the show's fringes.
In "Thanksgiving," however, she's the centerpiece, as the episode follows multiple Thanksgivings in her household (all with Dev) from her childhood to present day, as well as her elongated coming-out process. It's notable not just because of how well-written and affecting the end product is, but because it's utterly unique for television—how many soft stud characters do you see on TV, or for that matter, how many coming-out stories about black women and the specific culture they're born into?
It's a careful episode, realistically depicting Denise's steps as she begins to understand her identity and comes out to Dev—initially referring to herself as "Lebanese," because she's not yet comfortable enough to use the actual L-word. Even at a young age, Denise is aware of the cultural specificities: "Being gay isn't something black people love to talk about," she patiently explains to Dev.
At a later Thanksgiving, Denise comes out to her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett!) and gets the expected reaction: "It is hard enough to be a black woman in this world, and now you want to add something else to that?" It's a crushing but real response, one that Catherine can't help immediately blurting out, and one that's sadly reflective of reality. Queerness and blackness are already complicated identities; things get even messier when they're intertwined.
Throughout, "Thanksgiving" doesn't shy away from showing Catherine's hurt and confusion toward her daughter: With expert directing from Melina Matsoukas and a powerful performance from Bassett, we watch how Catherine's visibly uncomfortable as her daughter interact with her girlfriend Michelle (Ebony Obsidian), tilting her head and subtly glaring when Denise shows any sort of affection. What's most remarkable about this particular coming-out story is that it takes place over years, and there's no set moment in which Denise and her mother have an emotional, "I'll always love you" feel-good moment to make viewers breathe a sigh of relief.
Instead, there's a gradual non-verbal acceptance—bonding with Dev over a mutual dislike of one of Denise's girlfriends, then bonding with Michelle over a mutual dislike of Denise's clothing. It's notable also that much of this episode takes place in a kitchen—a sacred place for black women caretakers, and an epicenter of bustle and gossip—and it's here, too, where Catherine warms up the most to Michelle after the latter offers to help.
By the end, when Catherine takes her daughter's hand, it's clear that "Thanksgiving" is an episode that obviously wouldn't have worked with Dev at the center. It's not about Dev's reactions to his best friend's sexuality; it's about Dev—and Ansari—taking a back seat while Denise/Lena Waithe gets to tell her own story, as well as a story that's rarely, if ever, told on television.
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