Denise (Lena Waithe) was a breakout character in Season 1 of Grasp of None. She was Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) cool buddy who gave him and the gang levelheaded recommendation, outdressed them in varied blazers, and made them snort with tales of voicemails from Lil’ Funyuns. However in Season 2, with the episode titled “Thanksgiving,” viewers gained a complete new understanding of Denise and bought a uncommon take a look at a black queer lady’s coming-out story on a significant tv platform.
The episode, which is ready throughout a sequence of Thanksgiving holidays over a span of 30 years, reveals how Dev got here to have a familial relationship with Denise, how Denise got here to phrases together with her sexuality, and the way the ladies in her household — her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett), her Aunt Joyce (Kym Whitley), and her Grandma Ernestine (Venida Evans) — got here to phrases with it as properly.
“Oftentimes queer girls of shade are advised to take a seat down and be quiet and never have a voice.”
It is a narrative that is based mostly on Waithe’s personal coming-out story, however she advised BuzzFeed Information she by no means meant to make it TV fodder. “I by no means felt the necessity to inform it,” she stated. “I am an enormous fan of telling a narrative about queer individuals post-coming-out, as a result of the reality is we’re greater than our coming-out story.” However when the chance arose with Grasp of None‘s second season, she thought, “This would be the one and solely time I do that. Let me do it proper, let me knock it out the park, as a result of I am not going to inform that story once more.”
The “Thanksgiving” episode, Season 2’s eighth installment, begins within the early 1990s with Denise, round age 9, studying what a minority is after she errors Dev for black in entrance of her mother. Then, the episode jumps to Thanksgiving ’95, when Denise makes it clear that attire should not for her — and in Thanksgiving ’99, she makes it clear to Dev that relationship girls is for her. In Thanksgiving ’06, viewers see Denise come out to her mom, and in Thanksgiving ’15, she lastly brings a date residence. Whereas Denise’s household is clearly unimpressed by her “buddy” who’s been to China, the date Denise brings residence the next 12 months for Thanksgiving — a lady identified for her Instagram deal with, @Nipplesandtoes23 — fares even worse. And by Thanksgiving ’17, Denise returns together with her first date to a household that is lastly keen to simply accept her and her companion.
Waithe and the group behind the episode determined that in the event that they have been doing a coming-out episode, they needed it to be extra genuine and modern than something seen on TV earlier than. “I believe it is revolutionary, actually, as a result of oftentimes queer girls of shade are advised to take a seat down and be quiet and never have a voice,” Waithe stated. “So the truth that everybody has embraced mine, I believe, is unquestionably a beautiful step in the suitable path.”
The thought for the “Thanksgiving” episode took place in a really natural means. Throughout preproduction on Season 2 — after a lot acclaim, and even an Emmy award — co-showrunners Ansari and Alan Yang started considering of how they might increase a number of the characters’ tales. Los Angeles–based mostly Waithe remembered them bringing her into the writers room in New York to ask her, “What’s some stuff we are able to do with Denise this 12 months? Is there something that occurred?” Waithe began to explain what was occurring in her day-to-day life and the way she’d not too long ago introduced her girlfriend residence to satisfy her mother. “That’s an fascinating scene. Possibly it’s like, Dev goes for Thanksgiving,” stated Ansari. Then Yang stopped her to ask: “How did you come out to your loved ones? Simply out of curiosity.” “I began speaking to them about it, about what it was like rising up in a home stuffed with black girls,” Waithe recalled. She did not suppose something of it, however when she bought again to her resort room, she obtained a name from Ansari and Yang, who’d determined, “Yo, we have got to inform that story!”
However they have been decided to point out a coming-out story in a means TV viewers hadn’t seen earlier than. It was fellow Grasp of None author Aniz Ansari, Aziz’s brother, who then stated, “What if we do 30 years of Thanksgivings,” a pitch Waithe thought was “sensible.” Aziz then flew to London, the place Waithe was filming Steven Spielberg’s Prepared Participant One, to place all of it on paper. “He and I form of handed the laptop computer backwards and forwards to do a script collectively,” Waithe remembered. “That is actually form of the way it was born. It was very natural, as most issues are on that present.”
As soon as the script was written, they wanted to discover a director, and Ansari and Yang had their eyes on Melina Matsoukas, who’d gained acclaim for steering music movies for Beyoncé and Rihanna in addition to for being the principle director on the debut season of HBO’s Insecure. Yang advised BuzzFeed Information that a part of the explanation they needed Matsoukas, moreover the truth that she was the rookie of the 12 months so far as tv administrators go, was that “Thanksgiving” is “largely a narrative about black girls relating to one another, and the final time Aziz and I checked within the mirror, neither of us have been black girls.” Matsoukas, a local New Yorker of Jamaican, Cuban, Greek, and Jewish descent, was in a position so as to add a fellow black lady’s perspective and the authenticity the Grasp of None group craves for every episode they write.
Yang and Ansari requested Waithe to personally attain out to Matsoukas to see if she may get her on board. She bought Matsoukas’s contact data from her buddy, Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, and when Waithe lastly bought Matsoukas on the telephone, she was “actually pleading together with her.” “I want you to do that, I want you to come back on and do that episode, since you’re the one particular person I might belief to inform the story with me,” Waithe remembered saying. “You are a lady of shade, you are somebody who has such an awesome imaginative and prescient, and only a phenomenal artist. I do know that in case you do it you may knock it out the park.”
Matsoukas was simply as effusive speaking to BuzzFeed Information about what made her signal on to do the episode. “I noticed a terrific alternative,” she stated of the script. “I would by no means seen a black lady come out on tv earlier than, and it is completed in such a dramatic and humorous voice. I actually was about it, and we had an extended dialog and it was identical to, ‘Oh, wow, we communicate the identical language,’ and I actually needed to collaborate together with her.”
“It needed to keep true to Lena.”
Matsoukas stated working with multi-hyphenates like Waithe and Ansari who can write, direct, produce, and act allowed the “Thanksgiving” episode to really feel like a real collaboration. “I like the form of group strategy to it, and that is positively what the story wanted,” she stated. “It could not really feel like my story, as a result of it needed to keep true to Lena. So I may choose her mind and I may be taught in regards to the story and develop it and create a visible strategy to it and put as a lot of my stamp on it, however I at all times needed to stay true to her and have her enter and Aziz’s enter.”
And Ansari was not afraid to take a step again from the lead narrative (exhibit A: Season 2’s “New York, I Love You”), so he was advantageous with Dev having only a cameo within the “Thanksgiving” episode. “Dev is at all times going to be in each episode whether or not Aziz likes it or not, however it’s at all times about to what extent,” Waithe stated. “He is form of driving the story, or he is within the passenger seat or he is within the again seat.” In keeping with Waithe, all of them agreed that the “Thanksgiving” episode can be alternative to do a “cool origin story” about how “Denise and Dev really grew up collectively.”
Plus, it gave Waithe and Ansari a uncommon likelihood to cross “casting actors to play themselves and their household” off their bucket lists.
Waithe and Ansari had a thoughts meld on how one can inform the story of those two children rising up in ’90s New York and who they needed concerned. Ansari famous on the Vulture Competition in New York on Might 20 that they bonded over “loads of the identical cultural references from once we have been children.” Their largest shared obsession was ABC’s miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream, “which is why it’s actually superior we bought Angela Bassett,” stated Ansari.
Fortunately, it did not take a lot to get Bassett on board to play Denise’s mother, Catherine. Ansari merely despatched their script to the actor’s group and she or he stated sure.
For Waithe, casting Bassett was one of many biggest elements of constructing the episode. “For each black lady, Angela Bassett, she’s iconic,” she stated. “I believe for the world, she must be iconic, however I believe for black girls specifically she’s such a job mannequin and she or he’s so consultant of who they’re and their greatest selves.”
Waithe joked that she bowed when Bassett got here onto set. “She’s any person that you just straighten up your posture when she walks into the room as a result of she actually is Hollywood royalty,” the actor stated. However she additionally stated it was “simply really easy” to construct a mother-daughter bond with Bassett. “She walked on set and greeted me saying, ‘Hi there, daughter,’ and I stated, ‘Hi there, mother.’” Whereas Bassett has completed loads of tv currently as a part of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story troupe, Matsoukas defined that “working in a comedic form of area was simply fairly new to her, and was additionally one thing that she was curious about.”
Comic Kym Whitley, who’s lived and breathed comedy for the previous three many years, was Waithe’s first selection for the function of Aunt Joyce. Whitley was a mutual buddy of Bassett’s and Waithe’s, and Waithe considers her “one of many unsung heroes of this enterprise” who doubles as “each particular person’s aunt and mother’s greatest buddy.” Matsoukas stated that pairing Whitley with Bassett created “these nice comedic moments that you just actually couldn’t write … It was actually simply good casting.”
“It’s form of a bizarre, surreal world to be taking a look at a youthful model of your character slash you.”
And for followers of Love & Hip Hop: New York, the ladies introduced in former solid member Erica Mena as Nikki, Denise’s less-than-popular new girlfriend within the 2016 portion of the episode. Matsoukas is a fan of the Love & Hip Hop franchise, and she or he stated Mena “was on the prime of our checklist.” “We had our casting director attain out to her, and she or he got here in to audition, and we thought she was nice, and within the callback she was even higher,” Matsoukas stated. “We knew that we would have liked any person that was going to poke enjoyable at themselves and form of have enjoyable with it,” Waithe stated, and Mena delivered. “We have been actually blown away by her efficiency,” added Waithe, “and the craziest factor was she was in a position to riff with Aziz. Not all people can do this; it is not the best factor to do. It is tremendous intimidating as a result of clearly he is a comic book, and she or he got here in and was comfy, tremendous humorous, and she or he to me is such an awesome little gem within the episode.”
The dialogue within the episode, for probably the most half, is what’s on the web page, however Matsoukas and Ansari did cite a number of the episode’s funniest moments as improv successes, just like the scene the place Nikki has dinner with Denise’s household. Ansari stated he was “improvising increasingly nonsense,” making an attempt to get Waithe to snort, and he determined to take a break and go to his brother Aniz, Matsoukas, and Yang, who have been watching the scene play out on the screens. Ansari’s brother instructed, “What in case you say, ‘Is it nipples and the phrase “and” toes, or is it ampersand?’” in reference to Nikki’s Instagram deal with. “I used to be like, ‘Oh man, they don’t seem to be going to make it by that,’” Ansari recalled. It labored — Matsoukas stated she and the solid “couldn’t cease dying laughing.”
Matsoukas added that the little moments of Aunt Joyce making an attempt to consolation Catherine, who simply came upon her daughter is homosexual, by filling up her wineglass and Dev screaming throughout the desk at Grandma Ernestine have been a number of the moments it was hardest to maintain a straight face on set. “When Aziz was yelling on the lady, the beautiful Venida, who performed Ernestine, we form of could not maintain ourselves collectively,” Waithe stated. However Bassett, in line with Waithe, “is like frickin’ ice chilly.” “She’s simply so good that she by no means broke… Angela was at all times the consummate skilled.” By the top of these scenes, Matsoukas stated, “I need to watch this Angela and Kym Whitley Present, or no matter that is turning into — there’s a complete spinoff right here.”
Additionally they had enjoyable with the actors who performed the younger Devs and Denises. “All the youngsters have been incredible,” Waithe stated. “We simply bought watch them play and we have been cracking up, and we simply discovered it to be so humorous and amusing, however it’s form of a bizarre, surreal world to be taking a look at a youthful model of your character slash you, however we simply knew that individuals would get a kick out of it.”
As a result of the “Thanksgiving” episode exists outdoors of the narrative of Season 2, Matsoukas relished within the alternative so as to add her personal fashion to Grasp of None, from the nostalgic glow to the stellar music cues. “I needed it to appear and feel totally different,” she stated.
Whereas Matsoukas has a director of images she usually works with on her music movies, TV reveals have one DP that they work with. “I believe they’ve a sure language that was there and I got here in and form of understood what that was,” she stated.
The Grasp of None group was additionally open to Matsoukas “capturing one thing in a means they hadn’t earlier than,” however she tried to include the stylistic selections that persistently come up within the present. For example, Ansari likes to shoot in a single take, and Matsoukas did the identical for the ultimate scene of the “Thanksgiving” episode. And in a season that references traditional cinema shot on movie, Matsoukas’s influences simply so occurred to align. “I like capturing really on movie, not that I get to, however within the digital area, I work onerous at making it really feel prefer it has a soul like movie does,” Matsoukas stated. “I work actually onerous at bringing texture and story to the visuals of it, and in addition having the ability to see the influences of that tradition and that life within the scenes… I believe that makes a part of it really feel nostalgic in some methods.”
“There’s loads of magic in black girls’s hair, and that is form of like our crown and our satisfaction.”
The set design additionally helped in that side. Waithe grew up in her grandmother’s home, “so she needed [Denise’s house] to have that historical past to it if you noticed it, and have all of the influences of the totally different eras and the way that home form of advanced and progressed because the years handed,” Matsoukas stated. “It was necessary it had that historical past in each body.” Finally, they constructed the set for Denise’s household residence off of a home in Queens. To create Denise’s bed room, although, Waithe gave them photos of her childhood bed room. She and Matsoukas “picked one another’s brains about who we needed to spotlight and what actresses actually influenced her,” the director stated. “She’s an enormous ’90s sitcom fan — and clearly that takes place within the script too — and it was necessary to spotlight a few of these actresses.” That features Vanessa Williams, whose poster is on the foot of Denise’s mattress, and Jennifer Aniston from Associates, who smiles down on Denise from the ceiling each time she lies down. “It was so surreal strolling onto that set, as a result of it was actually like my room evolving through the years,” Waithe stated.
One other necessary think about getting the look of the episode proper was the ladies’s costumes, and extra importantly, as a result of the episode focuses on a household of black girls, their hair. “It wasn’t essentially one thing that I considered in writing it, however once we bought into manufacturing … even Angela and Kym have been very vocal about totally different seems to be and totally different vibes,” Waithe stated. “We positively undergo totally different phases in life, and our hair tells that story,” Matsoukas stated. “So as to present these totally different eras, it was pertinent that not solely the styling and the manufacturing design observe swimsuit, however it will solely appear pure that any person’s hair would evolve by the years as properly… There’s loads of magic in black girls’s hair, and that is form of like our crown and our satisfaction.” Waithe stated these aesthetics are “simply such an enormous a part of the tradition and simply black girls generally.” “It is like hair, make-up, garments, it is simply a lot to…for our swag, how we get down, how we take a look at the world,” she stated. “Manufacturing design, and wardrobe, and hair and make-up, like they actually make that episode one thing particular, as a result of with out them doing on a regular basis jumps and that form of stuff, I do not suppose the episode would pop the best way it does.”
One of many final main steps was including music, and with songs from artists like D’Angelo and New Version, the soundtrack to “Thanksgiving” pushes the episode even additional when it comes to being true to the time intervals wherein it is set. “Melina, and Aziz, and clearly our music supervisor, they do an awesome job of selecting the correct songs and the suitable moments, however Melina is an enormous music head, clearly, and she or he positively bought loads of say with these songs,” Waithe stated. There weren’t musical cues within the script, however that gave Matsoukas a chance so as to add extra of her personal touches. “How I direct is often that I am going to simply spend a day engaged on music, and I needed all the things to really feel pertinent to that point and place,” she stated. Having grown up in New York within the ’90s, she “may communicate properly to what was common and funky and underground on the time, and in addition becoming to the story and the scene. So I had really loads of enjoyable going again and placing some music to it.”
However there was some territory that was unfamiliar to everybody on set. The ultimate a part of the episode takes place sooner or later — at Thanksgiving 2017 — and it hits a very optimistic observe, given the truth that some individuals really feel like we at the moment are in a time the place futures, notably for LGBT individuals, don’t appear so sure. On the finish of the episode, Catherine has lastly come to simply accept Denise’s girlfriend Michelle (Ebony Obsidian), inviting her to assist put together the vacation feast.
“It’s extremely validating when a queer lady of shade speaks up and the audiences reply with a rousing spherical of applause.”
The second conveys, as Waithe described it, that “your life is your property and it’s important to reside it as authentically as attainable and never conceal from it.” Matsoukas additionally famous the timeliness and significance of the episode. “When you have got these robust familial ties and these robust relationships in an effort to form of survive what is going on on within the local weather outdoors of the house, displaying the help that she is ready to get from her household was pertinent, I believe, to creating it by our days right this moment,” the director stated.
These messages have shone by within the many constructive responses to the episode, together with Waithe’s mom’s. “She’s lastly seen the episode, and she or he actually likes it,” Waithe stated. “She did not care what the episode was about, she was identical to, ‘I simply love the thought of Angela Bassett taking part in me.’”
For Waithe, the overall response to the “Thanksgiving” episode is larger than she may’ve anticipated. “It is simply form of like very validating when a queer lady of shade speaks up and the audiences reply with a rousing spherical of applause,” she stated. “I believe it is a phenomenal factor, I believe it is a celebration.”