by Brendan Foley
Aziz Ansari has spent the last few years carefully constructing a pop culture personality for himself that is utterly divorced from the stereotypes and tropes that Hollywood would normally assign a young actor of Indian descent. Ansari’s usual persona (the self-styled ‘player’ whose carefully constructed style belies a sensitive man-baby) has served him well in his stand-up and in roles ranging from long-running supporting work in Parks and Recreation and supporting turns in films like Observe and Report and Funny People.
As consistently great as Ansari has been in TV and movies, he’s usually relegated to supporting roles. His stand-up sets reveal an energy, intelligence, and perspective that was only occasionally tapped into while he was playing secondary roles.
Master of None, now streaming on Netflix, is a 10-episode show that serves as a kind of declaration for Ansari about who he is and what he is capable of when given center stage and creative control.
And let me tell you: it’s a fucking mic drop.
Master follows Ansari’s Dev, a young guy in NYC making ends meet taking bit roles in commercials and trying to make headway into movies and TV. Dev’s not exactly passionate about acting (when pressed, he admits that he only got started after being randomly spotted by a producer one day), but the show gives a fun inside peek at the hustle that goes on behind the scenes.
While there are many, many funny incidents and characters over the course of the episodes, the spine of Master of None’s first season is the progression of Dev’s relationship with Rachel (Noel Wells), a music publicist who, like Dev, is struggling with where she is in life. Both Dev and Rachel are in their early 30s, reaching the point in life where there are no take-backs for bad decisions, the point at which you continue with a plan, a career (or a relationship) more because of how much time you have invested in it than because of the happiness you get out of it.
It’s difficult emotional and psychological stuff, and it’s to the credit of Ansari and Wells that they don’t flinch away from the tough questions, or from the moments where Dev and Rachel hurt each other or themselves. He’s incredibly indecisive and is too-quick to run for a joke in a difficult moment, while she can be cagey and inconsiderate at times. They love each other, mostly, but they drive each other crazy, sometimes, so where exactly do they go?
While that serves as the dramatic core of the show, Ansari and co-creator (and former Parks scribe) Alan Yang are comfortable with episodic plots as well, with many episodes serving as explorations of ideas, perspectives, and people that Dev (and the viewer) might never have considered.
The episode that sold me forever on this show and the people behind it was the second one, ‘Parents’, in which Dev and his buddy Brian (Kelvin Yu) deal for the first time with the disparity between their cushy adult lives and the incredible sacrifice and hardship that went into their parents’ decisions to come to America (from India and Taiwan, respectively). Like the rest of the series, ‘Parents’ is both laugh-til-you-choke funny and formed from a bedrock of empathy that allows the show to pummel you emotionally when it wants to.
Whether the show is discussing the progress (or lack thereof) of representations of people of color on television, or the everyday perils that women deal with when living in the city, the show is able to have difficult conversations about race, gender, white privilege, and a bevy of other topics, and it does so with humor and humanity that never tips over into lecture.
(The episode that deals specifically with gender issues, “Ladies and Gentleman,” was directed by Lynn Shelton and opens with six-minute long cold open that manages to toggle back and forth between hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying in the space of a cut. If you cut it out of the show and put it in cinemas, this sequence would be in the conversation for Best Short Film at this year’s Oscars, it’s that fucking good.)
Technically speaking, the show’s a knockout. Directors like Shelton, James Ponsoldt, Eric Wareheim (who also co-stars as Dev’s goofy buddy, marking the first time I have ever laughed at Eric Wareheim in probably a decade of seeing him in things [Dear Tim & Eric fans who feel like tracking me down on social media to try and explain the brilliance of Tim & Eric to me: Don’t.]) and Ansari himself shoot the show in Anamorphic, giving a gorgeous widescreen palette with which to capture the teeming life that moves through NYC around Dev.
The easiest point of comparison for the show is something like Seinfeld or Louie, shows in which a stand-up with well-defined attitudes and hang-ups are confronted by the mass of unruly life that is NYC. But both those shows have a misanthropy throbbing through their veins (not a negative statement) while Master of None is much more optimistic and warm. It’s a show by and about people who are genuinely excited about the idea of being wrong, about the idea of seeing the world through other peoples’ eyes and learning more.
(Ansari cast his own parents to play Dev’s mother and father, and has gone on record about how much working with them helped him understand their lives more and helped them come closer together.)
While the show takes on a decidedly bittersweet tenor as it winds down, Master of None never lets that warmth or optimism really fade. Maybe if Ansari keeps making the show for years, we’ll see that light dim, but for now, the first season is an expression of almost boundless joy and love, and it was a true pleasure to watch it.