News flash: Muslim-American citizens aren't having the best time right now. Travel restrictions, desecration of holy spaces and the risk of physical attack are very real, everyday threats. On TV, followers of Islam who aren't terrorists are frequently depicted as victims in need of empathy and support more than cool people you want to hang out with.
That's what makes Master of None's third episode "Religion" so vital and revolutionary. It could've annihilated fear of Muslims by portraying Islamophobes as small-minded hicks, or maybe shown our hero Dev (Aziz Ansari) wounded by hurtful comments or violence. Instead, Master of None craftily dismantles prejudice against Muslims with a simple, universally loved device: bacon.
To be sure, the grand ambition of "Religion" is to illustrate our millennial man's rejection of his parents' traditions — Master of None's ever-present theme. Both the episode's beginning — in which kids of all faiths are dragged into worship — and the end, when Dev has wine with friends while his parents join peers in prayer, highlight that generational divide. Sandwiched between that though is a fresh, funny and eye-opening eff-you to Islamophobia from the mind of a Muslim man who's wielding mouthwatering pork as a weapon.
The takedown begins with a flashback to Dev as an elementary-school age kid. Adorably chomping on the all-American bacon and eggs at a (white) friends' house, he learns via a call from his mom that he's a Muslim and Muslims don't eat pork. For Dev, it's a moment that deepens his "other"-ness and awakens him to the idea that religion means deprivation of wonderful things. But, screw it! He dives in. With Tupac playing in the background, Dev tastes the forbidden fruit, reminding (or informing) us that being Muslim means being part of a very, very large group of people (about 3.3 million people in the U.S; some 1.6 billion globally) who inevitably are going to have different perspectives, approaches and, yes, tastes.
In the present, Dev convinces his swine-deprived cousin to go with him to a pork festival, where they throw down on ribs and BBQ. Although rooted in truth (Ansari really does like pork, as he discussed on Conan a few years ago) the scene is absurdly over-the-top. But there's no way you can watch the brown-skinned boys giddily gorging on pork alongside a portly white dude as Poison's "Nothing But a Good Time" plays and think this is just a celebration of the other white meat. No. It's about seeing a Muslim man scream that he wants to be seen as an individual by his parents — and others. It's an absurdist, in-your-face way of shouting, "HEY PAL! WE ARE NOT ALL TERRORISTS! And would you please pass the hot sauce?! Thanks."
Heavy-handed propaganda? Yes. But by showing Dev committing the grave sin of loving bacon and coming clean to his parents about it, Master of None dismantles the painful and dangerous stereotype of Muslims as threatening, scary people. As he admits to them in a heartbreaking moment, part of his hesitancy to embrace his own religion is the fear of being labeled a terrorist; he resents the extra time it takes at the TSA gate as it is. That's why the sight of Dev grinning at a pork festival is so much more than a good time: "Religion" employs a ridiculous gag to show how ridiculous it is to believe an entire group of people are bad. And that's so very delicious.
Master of None Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.