'Master of None': TV Review
A surprisingly creative, funny and sweet breakout for Aziz Ansari as he creates his own series for Netflix and busts out of the character actor limitations of the past, delivering a real gem.
It’s not hard to imagine why Netflix wanted to let Aziz Ansari make his own television series. Despite what we think we know about him from his role on Parks and Recreation or even his stand-up specials, he’s got more to reveal, and his pitch for Master of None, which starts Nov. 6, no doubt let Netflix in on his plans to evolve as an artist.
You won’t see it immediately on Master of None — the first episode unfolds pretty much how you’d think an Ansari show would — like taking his Parks & Rec character (which hews close to how he acts a lot of the time) and giving him 30 minutes to roam around New York with friends, bleating out mostly obvious observations about parenting and dating.
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Ah, but there are a couple of moments in that pilot that hint at what’s to come — little insights into Ansari’s more structured representation of how he wants to present himself as a comic actor and writer (and director now). He’s been given this blank slate from Netflix and decided to create a character, Dev, based loosely on himself, who gets more screen time than his Tom Haverford character from Parks & Rec, is more nuanced when given more time, and darts into a calmer corner, away from his under-the-floodlights stand-up persona.
It’s a welcome change and a nice evolution — and it kicks into gear with the second episode of Master of None, which was co-created and is co-written with Alan Yang, and blossoms rewardingly from there as the episodes unfold.
There's a corollary here to Louis CK and his FX series Louie, though Ansari and Master of None are not yet on that level. But what FX saw from CK, who has been at this longer than Ansari, is the same creative originality that Netflix clearly saw in Ansari and gave him an opportunity. What he's proving, with each episode of Master of None, is that he was the right choice for a fresh vision of a TV show.
The series is — and this says a lot about the coddled world of not-quite-grown-ups — a kind of coming-of-age story about Dev (Ansari), a 30-year-old first generation American trying to make it in the modern, multicultural playground of 2015 New York City, where technology is cool and superhero movies are awesome (and plentiful) and sick beats reverberate out of countless clubs, singles are trying to hook-up and friends are just a short text or emoji message away from helping you navigate these amazing times.
Dev is best friends with Taiwanese-American Brian (Kelvin Yu), who is also struggling with the cultural differences he feels with his father (whose one luxury in life seems to be drinking water); African-American Denise (Lena Waithe, Dear White People), a lesbian who guides and mocks Dev’s choices in women and Arnold (Eric Wareheim, Tim and Eric), who seems to ironically be Dev’s token white friend but also a spirit guide for very bad decisions made by single, stunted males.
Race is clearly a big part of Master of None, but Ansari isn’t overtly banging a gong here about what it’s like to be minority — bits of it come out naturally in the storytelling, and just by dint of having Indian, Asian and black characters hang out in New York instead of four white people on a couch, Ansari is presenting his worldview.
The edges that Ansari pulls up reveal the heart of his character, the show and the times. He's so close and yet so far from his parents (played here by his real-life parents) — a reminder of how hard they worked to put him in this comfy situation and yet how difficult it is for him to explain to them what he wants from life (an acting job, at the moment).
In the second episode, which Ansari directs, he shifts the series more into focus about what it will be and what it will say — and how it will look. In “Parents,” Ansari sets up Dev and Brian as mostly ungrateful offspring to hard-working immigrant parents they can’t be bothered with because there’s a new superhero movie out and parents are kind of annoying anyway, with their constant inability to make technology work and raining on your parade.
“You realize fun is a new thing, right?” Dev’s dad tells him.
“Do you know anything about your dad’s backstory?” Dev asks Brian, in the modern lingo of ancestry. Brian: “I know the big points. He was poor, he was in another country and then he came here. I got the gist of it.”
Brian and Dev decide to invite their parents to dinner. It’s both funny and eye-opening for them, and when it’s over and they’re walking around the next day, Dev puts it into perspective: “What an insane journey. My dad used to bathe in a river, and now he drives a car that talks to him.”
It’s one of many funny and sweet moments in Master of None — the sweetness being a little more of a surprise because of the consistency and depth it takes over the course of these episodes, which sets up Ansari as both funny man-child but also someone raised with a code (that often haunts him).
Master of None improves in each of the early episodes precisely because Ansari and Yang show growth as series creators and writers — taking the “character” people love, the slightly nerdy guy who gets overly excited when good things happen, who plays suave and confident but is riddled with fears, who’s down for anything but often feels letdown when he experiences it — and puts him in an environment with like-minded people trying to discover who they are.
“I’m a person, not a bubble in a phone,” Dev laments about how women treat him via text, even though he kinda-sorta understands he’s the same way with his own communications. There’s a continuing storyline in Master of None where Dev lands a bit part in The Sickening, which he dubs the “black virus movie” because people of color are finally making a genre film. On the set he meets another character actor played by the wonderful H. Jon Benjamin (Archer), who has the exact perfect attitude of a bit player one step removed from a background actor. He’s also settled down and happy living a normal, boring life with his wife watching “two to three hours” of Netflix before bed. Benjamin’s character gets to be the adult that Dev isn’t yet. Dev shows him a text conversation on his phone to illustrate how people his age interact and Benjamin’s character says, “I hated all of that” after reading it.
Ansari quickly discovers that playing Dev off of others helps him develop and makes for good comedy, since Brian, Denise and Arnold are peers who pretty much think and act like him. For what it’s worth, Ansari likes to frame his interactions with these friends in the most low-key, natural way possible — as if you’re eavesdropping on a conversation, not watching a sitcom scene. It helps keep the series grounded and often feels like a low budget indie film.
By the fourth episode, Dev (and by extension, Ansari) has graduated from a minor character we only know from punchlines, to a more defined character you can root for and laugh with (and sometimes at).
The fourth episode is also where Ansari deftly brings in guest actors Claire Danes (Homeland) as a food critic who sleeps with Dev because she’s got a dysfunctional relationship with her husband, played by Noah Emmerich (The Americans). The B-story features British actor Colin Salmon also working on The Sickening. (The newbie actor plot echoes — in a good way — a lot of what Ricky Gervais mined with Extras and that lifestyle).
It’s always a good sign that a show is finding its way when it can seamlessly integrate big-name guest stars and not make it seem forced.
That episode in particular brings out what audiences seem to love about Ansari and his near child-like wonder at life’s good times. When Danes' character comes on to him and kisses him, he can’t believe his good luck. She smokes pot with him because “I always smoke it before I have sex.” Dev — and you can probably hear Ansari’s excited voice as he realizes what that means — flips out. “Oh, shit! You’re smoking it now! This is so awesome.” When Danes' character presses him against a pole and kisses him aggressively, Dev cuts off the kiss and says, “This is like the coolest thing that’s ever happened. Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how cool this is?”
You want Dev to have these victories because despite all his bluster, he’s not exactly killing it at life. In fact, Danes' character had to tell him that the woman he had a date with that night was only there for the free food. No woman wears a hoodie and a pair of New Balance running shoes when she’s going to have sex later, she tells him. Dev, deflated, acknowledges that his date did order two entrees.
It’s the little things that pile up and work in Master of None. When the inevitable happens and Emmerich’s character catches Dev (a very funny screaming moment), he shouts at Danes’ character: “You’re cheating on me with a little Indian guy?!”
Dev, hurt rather than outraged: “You don’t have to bring up my ethnicity — or my size.”
Ansari has something strong here — a project he puts his stamp on a little bit at a time, building a funny world you want to enter and watch him “grow up” in. It’s a different enough take on what’s dominating television that, in its own fledgling way, brings up those Louie comparisons again — how CK was able to tweak convention just enough to keep it weird and funny and original.
Ansari and Yang have a keen ear for quick dialogue that’s funny, but also displays a real sense of quirkiness (perhaps newly found or now being allowed to flourish), best brought out by Salmon, playing the over-the-top bit player on The Sickening (where comedian Todd Barry plays the best jaded director you’ll ever see). Ansari even manages to make a mini rom-com out of episode five, when he takes a woman he’s been pursuing in earlier episodes, Rachel (Noel Wells) to Nashville. It’s more endearing than hilarious and all the better off for it — another creative leap (and points for starting the episode with a breakdown of Eminem and then infusing the rest of it with country — which might be also be a good time to thank Netflix for clearing so much great music on Master of None).
All of these elements are strong indications that Ansari gets it, that he’s having a blast crafting his own vision, using his friends to bring that vision to life and doing it in a way that’s just different enough to stand out. Through five (of 10) episodes, Master of None shows an increasingly deft hand as Ansari starts coming of age as a creator.