In September 2017, Lena Waithe became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” which also deservedly cracked the top ten of TV Guide’s 2018 list of the 21st century’s best television episodes. Loosely based on Waithe’s own experience coming out as queer, it was directed by Melina Matsoukas, admired for her music video direction (Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love” are also arguably among the century’s best).
The episode chronicles a series of seven Thankgsivings with Waithe’s character Denise’s family from the 1990s to the present, which her friend Dev (Aziz Ansari) always joins. Different actors play younger versions of Denise and Dev over the decades, but Denise’s family is played by the same women, all divine: Angela Bassett (her mother Catherine), Kym Whitley (her aunt Joyce), and Venida Evans (her grandmother Ernestine).
The 34-minute episode takes an American TV standard—the Thanksgiving Special, an ideal premise for the domestic medium to explore family dynamics—and brilliantly expands it to narrate Denise’s coming-out process. Pop-culture references litter its set design, storyline, and soundtrack. Autographed posters of 90s celebrities adorn Denise’s bedroom wall (Vanessa Williams, Karyn Parsons, Halle Berry, and Jennifer Aniston feature prominently), while VHSes of black films are piled next to her TV (I spotted Menace II Society, Boyz N the Hood, Black Brigade, Shaft, Dead Presidents, and Men in Black). Watching Do the Right Thing after the 2016 dinner, Denise’s new girlfriend fails to display sensitivity to its most disturbing scene, and we know she’s not a keeper.
Dinner conversations index both Denise’s gradual path to acceptance by her family and the persistent melodramas of racial injustice throughout American history. In 1995, Joyce impatiently cuts off Ernestine’s pre-dinner blessings to talk about OJ. Catherine observes, “If Nicole was black, we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” Over 20 years later, Sandra Bland comes up, and Catherine notes that “If Sandra was white we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.” These passing but stinging symmetries offer a glimpse of the episode’s greater masterclass in temporal condensation; in televisual form it “stuffs” in so much, like families do at Thanksgiving dinner itself.
Master of None is available to stream on Netflix.