Golden Words — Master of None, “Thanksgiving”

   Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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Thanksgiving is a time of family togetherness, which has its perils. Among the many traditions associated with the holiday is the sharing of rueful jokes anticipating the political arguments that will wriggle into being somewhere between a second helping of turkey and dozing off in front a football game. In an era when red baseball caps are an emblem of proud disregard for other people’s feelings, that spot of potential trouble is more fraught than ever. For some, gatherings of kin are further shaded by melancholy reminders of difficulty of being oneself, always on the verge of being rejected — or at least treated in an extremely uncomfortable manner — by those who are supposed to be founts of unconditional love.

The most unassailable accomplishment of the Netflix series Master of None, co-created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, is the way it gave voice to identities that were previously kept at the fringes of popular entertainment. And the show’s pliability format, built more on demolishing structures than maintaining them, allowed for creative people to step in with stories that arguably couldn’t be told anywhere else. Master of None cast member Lena Waithe had writing credits on four prior television series, but I suspect it’s accurate to say she didn’t have the space to truly shape her own history into fiction until she was given a late episode in the second season of the show where she played Denise, a friend of the lead character, Dev, played by Ansari.

Officially, Waithe and Ansari co-wrote the episode entitled “Thanksgiving,” but there’s little doubt as to its origin point. Told in vignettes of various Thanksgiving holidays over the years, which Dev typically spent with Denise and her family, the episode depicts an extended coming out process. Denise is attracted to females, but, as she explains to Dev, homosexuality is a touchy subject for a black family like hers. With precisely scripted interludes, the episode shows the gradual and tenuous acceptance Denise reaches, each setback and tentative step forward rendered with equal poignancy.

Waithe, to her immense credit, used “Thanksgiving” as a catapult. She took the acclaim rained upon the episode — including, of course, an Emmy win for its writing — and transformed it into the sturdy asphalt of a career path. shepherding at least three of her own television series to air, signing a lucrative development deal with Amazon, and penning a big screen feature directed by “Thanksgiving” helmer Melina Matsoukas. Those bygone dinners. Her recent explanation of how she stood fast to keep control of her various projects serves as a fine underlying reason for how her character Denise made it through the tests leveled against her in the winning episode: She knew her worth. That’s powerful, enviable knowledge.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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