Master of None is a wonderful new comedy from an old friend with a powerful voice.
You know, Ben Kingsley did an Indian accent in Gandhi and he won an Oscar for it.
But he didn’t win the Oscar for doing the accent. I mean, it wasn’t an Oscar for ‘Best Indian Accent.’
I love Game of Thrones as much as anyone, but there were definitely times this season where the show felt immeasurably dark and grueling. In fact, that’s a feeling that pervades a lot of our recent Sunday night shows. The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, Homeland…when did great television become so dour? Thankfully, there is hope in the half-hour comedy. Often relegated to little brother status compared to the hour-long drama, comedies have actually become one of the most innovative spaces on television. Think of the multi-episode storytelling of Louie or the socially groundbreaking Transparent; remember the mad-cap cameo lunacy of 30 Rock and the comforting warmth of Parks and Recreation. The half-hour comedy is our ticket out of the doldrums without sacrificing quality.
Now add Master of None to your list, because Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show is already the equal of those other innovative comedies. Developed by Ansari and Alan Yang, Master of None follows the life of Dev Shah (Ansari) as he lives and works in New York City. It’s the template for a hundred different series, but what sets Master of None apart is its interest in using Dev’s experiences as a portal to examine how racism, sexism, and the immigrant experience all play a part in his and his friends’ lives. Sure, the show spends ample time on relationships and dating in the modern age (pulling from the best of Ansari’s stand-up material), but its wider focus prevents it from becoming a millennial navel gaze.
What’s so stunning about Master of None is how quickly it finds its feet as a confident and competent program. There’s a long history of comedies taking an entire first season to find their groove and leaving a slew of awkward early episodes in its wake (see: The Office, Seinfeld, the aforementioned Parks). The series begins with Dev and a casual sex partner’s birth control mishap, and then uses the remainder of its runtime to explore his fears over parenthood. It’s not that different from what you might see in a typical episode of Girls, but Ansari and Yang are too clever to tread such ground for too long. If the first episode “Plan B” has a very pilot-esque feel to it, that shaky awkwardness has completely disappeared by Episode 2, “Parents,” which is the first of the show’s episodes to deal with a broader topic.
“Parents” focuses on Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu), both children of immigrant parents who finally come to understand the sacrifices their parents made for them by leaving their homes and moving to the United States. The episode cuts between Dev and Brian’s minor modern squabbles and vignettes from their fathers’ pasts as they were forced to sacrifice pets to put food on the table, leave the only homes they’d ever known, and face racism in a new country in order to give their future children a better life. Through it all, Master of None manages to avoid feeling overly preachy. Many of the vignettes are touching and funny, and even when Dev and Brian act like spoiled, ungrateful children, there’s a feeling that their parents realize that their children are indeed living the comfortable lives that they always dreamed of providing. Adding to the episode’s touching feel is the knowledge that Dev’s parents are played by Ansari’s real-world mother and father. If you don’t feel like calling your parents when the episode ends and thanking them for their sacrifices, you might be a monster. (Though if you don’t actually call them then you’re probably just a millennial American.)
“Old People” gives a similar treatment for the elderly, and includes a wonderful guest-starring appearance by Lynn Cohen as a grandmother who just wants a night out from her senior living home. “Indians on TV” showcases racism in the entertainment industry when Dev finds himself as the butt of a racist joke in a TV executive’s email. My favorite of the “social issue” episodes, however, is “Ladies and Gentlemen,” which is actually the only episode without a writing credit for either Ansari or Yang. After a night out drinking, Dev describes his “terrible” night in which he couldn’t get drinks from a bartender and stepped in dog poop, only to be put in his place by a woman who had an actual terrible night of being followed home and having to call the cops on a stalker. Dev and his friends Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise (Lena Waithe) soon find themselves discussing the different problems that men and women face in the modern world. From constant online harassment to constant evaluation of their looks, the women point out how difficult their lives can be, and Dev decides to begin living with women’s rights in mind. His grand new plan backfires, however, when he points out casting sexism to his director on a TV commercial he’s shooting, and the director responds by giving Dev’s role to a woman.
These essay-style episodes are mixed in with small-scale relationship stories, as other episodes focus just on Dev’s part in a horror movie, his friends, and his burgeoning relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells), his casual hookup from the pilot episode. Not every episode has an intense discussion about racism or sexism, and Dev and his friends are just as likely to be discussing Sherlock, ghosts, or narrator perspectives in Eminem songs as they are the male-female wage gap. Dev’s dating experiences largely mirror topics discussed in Ansari’s humor/social critique book Modern Romance, and Ansari is keenly aware of the hurdles that texting etiquette and mobile apps add to the current dating scene, and he examines them with a sharp sense of humor. The episode “Mornings” is a wildly clever examination of the ups and downs of a relationship over the course of a year by just focusing on a couple’s mornings together, and it typifies the thoughtfulness of minds working behind the scenes.
None of this would work without Ansari’s easy charisma and humor, and it’s easy to see his personal touch all across Master of None. Like the several years of comedy specials, books, and movie/TV roles that have led to this point in his career, Master of None is always hilarious with a sweet, hip twist. No other star would have a show about racism against Indians, and certainly none that would seem as personal to its main character. Ansari’s career of just playing average guy roles and refusing to conform to his stereotype has given him the popularity and power to examine just such an issue, and to have millions of fans ready to watch it. The great news is that he didn’t botch his chance when he finally got it. Ansari isn’t exactly a new voice, but he’s definitely a powerful voice, and he’s making the most of what makes him so original. Master of None is wonderful.