Over the long holiday weekend, chances are you binged on at least one Netflix show—and now you want to talk to a friend about it. But how? You can go cryptic: Have you figured out what happens to the main character yet? Or you can go analytical: Which number episode are you on? Or you can attempt to tiptoe through the conversation: Have you gotten to the part when they go to…?
The second season Master of None doesn’t have that problem. It invites easy, spoiler-free shorthand. There’s the episode in black-and-white; the episode that’s twice as long; the silent episode. Each functions as a minimovie of sorts, complete with a cinematic title screen and opening credits that feel like something out of an Italian neorealist film.
It’s not the only recent Netflix comedy that employs movie-like flourishes. Dear White People pulls a Rashomon, each episode acting as a window into a different character’s life during a period of racial upheaval on a college campus. But while formally interesting, those heavy demarcations between episodes introduce a new tension to Netflix’s gobble-’em-all model. They make Master of None and Dear White People compellingly watchable shows—at the risk of sacrificing their bingeability.
Standalone episodes aren’t new, and they come in many shapes. Over time, they’ve been used to help usher characters into a spinoff series, create “crossover” events where casts of two different shows meet, provide “very special” episodes that tackle a sensitive topic, or even save costs and challenge directors with a single-location “bottle episode.” (Star Trek coined the term, though Breaking Bad’s “Fly” might be the most renowned recent example.) The recent rise of anthology series like Black Mirror makes each episode its own story, with its own plot and own cast. A standalone episode can even go meta, in order to make a point about its own show—earlier this year, Girls episode “American Bitch” functioned as a think piece about Girls think pieces.
Master of None and Dear White People use their own distinct variations, though each has a similar effect. None of their episodes happen in a vacuum—they all act in concert with each show’s long narrative arc of their seasons—but both completely subvert the ephemeral impact of most binged shows. When you’ve scarfed down a season of The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, you might have lingering memory of a joke or a plot point, but that’s about it. Master of None and Dear White People break up your experience, encouraging you to sip rather than slam. And if you do go for the full monty, what you remember isn’t dialogue, but atmosphere and emotion—a sense of what a character is going through.
Master of None’s taste for standalone episodes started in the show’s first season: “Parents” navigated immigrant family dynamics; “Ladies and Gentlemen” depicted the different experiences of men and women walking home alone at night; “Indians on TV” tackled the issue of casual racism in media representations. “These digressions and diversions just felt very natural,” says Alan Yang, who co-created the show with Aziz Ansari. “It just felt like when the topic was big enough, and was interesting enough, then it could sustain a whole episode.”
After the success of the first season, Yang and Ansari used the second season to pursue more ambitious themes. “New York, I Love You” takes a page from Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker in order to focus on characters who in many shows might be background extras: a doorman; a taxi driver; and a deaf woman who works in a bodega. The portion from the deaf woman’s perspective is entirely silent. “It was a really wild idea, and we didn’t know if we could tackle it in season one,” says Yang. “But it always stuck in our brains, so we came back to it for season two, and finally cracked it.”
That gives rise to a new breed of Netflix comedy—one that thrives on word of mouth, but has marquee moments.
Dear White People’s approach, while similar, was less about a single idea and more about a systemic effort. “Issues about race, as triggering as they are, you really can’t get at it from one point of view,” says creator Justin Simien, who also wrote and directed the 2014 movie of the same name. “It really does take multiple perspectives on the thing.”
And with both shows, the result is an uncommonly customizable experience. Viewers can watch one episode or 10, even out of order, without necessarily disrupting the narrative arc. “I think there’s something natural in giving the experience totally to the audience, to have as they want to,” Simien says.
That gives rise to a new breed of Netflix comedy—one that thrives on word of mouth, but also suggests cherry-pickable marquee moments. Viewers can relate to one character’s perspective in Dear White People without needing to watch the whole season; they can watch “New York, I Love You” without ever having seen an episode of Master of None. “You see a different look and a different tone in all of them,” says Yang. “If you don’t totally connect with one, you just watch the next one.”
The recent run of shows about characters who aren’t white, straight, and well-off has communicated that there’s not one black experience, or gay experience, or son-of-immigrants-who-loves-pasta experience. But Master of None and Dear White People both tell a range of stories within one season, by giving characters the time to tell a nuanced story all their own. The episodes—and their ideas—don’t run together into one binge-and-forget weekend. And that’s a good thing.