Thirty years, one Angela Bassett.
There are a lot of stand-out episodes in Master of None’s second season, but one that immediately had people buzzing was “Thanksgiving,” the eighth installment in the show’s new batch. Like a lot of the season, the story came from a personal place — it’s based on Denise actress Lena Waithe’s actual experience coming out to her family. Over the course of three decades, we see Waithe’s character Denise and her best friend, Aziz Ansari’s Dev, get together at Denise’s house at Thanksgiving. Different actors play them as they get older, but one thing stays the same: Bassett plays Denise’s mother each time. The episode’s centerpiece is an emotional scene between Waithe and Bassett at a diner, where they finally have a frank discussion about Denise’s sexuality.
Waithe co-wrote the episode with Ansari, who remembers the production process vividly. “I was like, ‘We have to do one big Denise episode,’” Ansari tells EW. “So Alan [Yang, series co-creator] and I started talking to Lena about what are some things she thinks might be interesting and what are some things that have been happening to her. She told the story about bringing home her partner to her mom. It was the first time she brought home a woman she was dating to meet her parents on Thanksgiving. I was like, ‘That’s interesting.’”
He adds: “We eventually landed on the idea of how Dev would always have Thanksgiving at Denise’s family’s house, and we span their whole lives — 30 years of Thanksgivings. So we had that idea, and we were like, ‘Who can play the mom?’ That’s obviously a huge role.”
Waithe, Ansari, and his brother and co-writer, Aniz Ansari, immediately thought of one of their favorite projects, The Jacksons: An American Dream, the 1992 mini-series based on Michael Jackson’s family’s rise to fame. “We decided that every black kid and every Indian kid at some point became obsessed with this and memorized the whole thing,” Ansari explains. “Angela Bassett plays [the singer’s mom, Katherine Jackson] in American Dream. We were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if we got Angela Bassett?’ Because she’s just an incredible actress, but also it’s so funny because in The Jacksons she does a similar thing. You see her evolve through time. So that was kind of the idea. We were like, ‘Let’s just try it’ — and she said yes!”
Yang attests to the star-struck feeling of everyone on set that day. “What an amazing thing to see Angela Bassett say stuff that you helped work on,” Yang says. “She’s just not only really professional but is really sweet and nice and just liked to hang out and tell us amazing stories that we would never hear otherwise. I felt like watching Lena act in that scene in the diner with her was just…I got emotional. We were delighted.”
Ansari concurs: “It’s unbelievable. The scene where it’s Angela and Denise in the diner, that was a really special thing to watch. It was like seeing an amazing acting class. I was really impressed with Lena holding her own with her in that scene. They did such a great job.”
Master of None season 2 is streaming on Netflix.