The coming-out episode has become a staple among television tropes since Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode” in 1997 blew the door off television’s glass closet. There had been earlier depictions―for instance Clayton Hollingsworth coming out to his sister Blanche on The Golden Girls in 1988 (“Scared Straight”)―but the hysteria (and backlash) over Ellen Morgan’s announcement was a seismic shift in the way television shows handled LGBTQ characters. From then on, the coming-out episode became a thing.
Justin did it to his parents on Queer as Folk (“Ted’s Not Dead”), a different Justin did it to his family on Ugly Betty (“The Past Presents the Future“), Kurt did it to his dad on Glee (“Preggers”), Max did it to his parents on Happy Endings (“Mein Coming Out”), Maura did it to her family on the very first episode of Transparent; not only Jack did it to his mom (“Homo for the Holidays”) on Will & Grace, but Will did it to Grace during a two-part flashback (“Lows in the Mid-Eighties”).
While all these episodes have undoubtedly helped people come out, as seeing your experience reflected has a positive and reinforcing effect, not every experience is reflected and after a while, these episodes can start to feel rote and uninspired. Cue the tears, cue the drama, cue the happy ending or getting kicked out of the house.
With “Thanksgiving,” Master of None delivered one of the best episodes of television this year― and that’s saying a lot, because, if you haven’t noticed or read a thinkpiece on it, we’re in the Golden Age of Television™. Over a series of Thanksgiving dinners, Denise (played by Lena Waithe, who also co-wrote the episode) and her family learn to embrace her sexual orientation.
It’s a perfect episode for a number of reasons: As a love letter to ‘90s hip hop and R&B (the pinnacle of human achievement), as a brilliant tour de force of comedy—particularly from national treasure Kym Whitley, with a more charming than usual turn from Aziz Ansari and his younger Devs—and it still manages to sneak in some butter-smooth social commentary about Nicole Brown and Sandra Bland, crystallizing 20 years of tragically fraught race relations with one brutally true punchline.
Oh, and did I mention Angela Fucking Bassett? Let’s all just take a moment to thank the universe for La Bassett. She’s been one of our greatest working actresses―literally and figuratively burning a hole in our screens―for the past 30 years.
And hasn’t aged a day since. As Denise’s mother Catherine, her wig game is stellar, but her capacity for humor and truth and emotional depth is astounding. She has the most difficult time coming to grips with Denise’s sexuality, but it’s not out of a place of hate or intolerance, but rather love and fear for her child.
Black people are often stereotyped as somehow being more homophobic than other races when the reality is far more complicated than that. Aside from a higher percentage of blacks identifying as LGBTQ than whites or Latinos, intolerance or misunderstanding often stems from strict West Indian or African heritage—where the mark of colonialism continues to be felt—but also from the multitude of baggage that comes inherently with being black in America. Or as Catherine puts it.
I never got a chance to come out to my mother—she died shortly before I turned 14, which was when I started coming out—but this was the closest I've come. I could imagine her having a similar reaction, as if my being gay was a choice, as if I would choose to make my life that much harder. But parents just want the best for their kids and hate anything that might impede that.
“I’ve made a living off of being my gay black self,” Waithe recently told Out about the episode. “People really respond to this character, and I think that’s a triumph. My mom will see this. Her biggest worry was who’s going to know, but now that I’m a public figure, she’s cool about it.”
For Catherine, and apparently for Lena’s real mother, the problem wasn't being gay but how the world would treat her as a result. That's an important distinction to make. And so coming-out isn’t just a neat, teary, beautifully acted scene between Bassett and Waithe―though that’s part of it, too―it is a long and complicated process, which Master of None handles (pun intended) masterfully.
The episode starts off in 1992, establishing the tradition of Dev (Ansari) attending Thanksgiving dinner with Denise, her mother, her aunt (Whitley), and her impossibly old grandmother (Venida Evans). Denise first comes out to Dev in 1999, both agreeing to use the term “Lebanese” as a matter of comfort for Denise. She then comes out to her mother in a diner in 2006, the only Thanksgiving not spent at home with Dev and the fam. In 2015, she brings a girl home for the first time, but things don’t reach a comfortable normal until the final Thanksgiving in 2017. Essentially this coming-out was 25 years in the making.
And that’s how life is. Real life doesn’t end with a pat conclusion after 22 or 44 minutes, not including commercials. Still, in 34 minutes, sans commercials, Master of None managed to create a perfect coming-out episode because it didn’t go for the easy emotions. Dev asks Denise if her mom disowned her or hugged her and said something about loving her no matter what. No, because that’s been done. What hasn’t been done is a coming-out episode with this much wit and humor about a black woman navigating the intersections of her conflicting identities. That’s what makes “Thanksgiving” so perfect.
Well, that, and, of course, Angie Fucking Bassett.