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With ‘Master of None’, Aziz Ansari Solidifies His Place in the Pop Culture Canon

Created by: Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang
Premieres: Friday, November 6th on Netflix
Entire first season watched for review

“I feel like this is my new favorite show.”

 

One major trend of the streaming era of television is a severe focus on serialization, sometimes at the expense of episodic integrity. Even shows like Orange is the New Black, that give each episode over to a specific piece of character backstory, seem beholden to the principle of dragging the audience through the entire journey at once. When all ten or thirteen episodes are dropped in a single day, the effort partially becomes including enough cliffhangers to get the viewer to consume the entire meal in one or two sittings.

Master of None, the new series from Aziz Ansari, does release ten episodes at once this Friday. But it’s much less concerned with an overarching plot to keep Netflix subscribers invested. Instead, the series relies on quality and an ability to shift gears. You’ll want to continue watching not because you need to see how something is resolved. You’ll do it to see what Aziz and co-creator Alan Yang have further up their sleeves. By deftly balancing everything from satire to romantic comedy to social commentary to poetic drama, Master of None fails to live up to its name in the best possible way.

Put simply, the series follows struggling New York actor Dev (Ansari) as he navigates the world of friendship, career stakes and modern romance (to borrow the title of Ansari’s recent book). That sounds boring, though, or at least tired in a pop culture landscape full of urban, self-reflective glimpses into creative minds and broken hearts. Luckily, Ansari and Yang are acutely aware of this, capable of both leaning into and mildly subverting the expected. And underlying each topic is a sensitive, melancholy heart that keeps the speechifying human.

Take the series’ third episode, which deals with how people communicate these days; the specific dialect of texting if you will. An early conversation between Dev and his friends circles around the etiquette of asking a woman out, and waiting for her reply. Different characters stand in for various points of view, ranging from saying nothing to sending an innocuous question mark as a follow-up. What helps this from feeling like a transcribed essay on “the way things are now” is that we already know each friend beyond their place in the debate. Arnold (Eric Wareheim) is a detached, oddball man-child whose advice should likely never be taken. Brian (Kelvin Yu) is unaware of how much of his success derives from looking like he does. Denise (Lisa Waithe) is more likely to spend time on anecdotes about her misadventures with women than help Dev with his.

All of this allows Ansari to have his cake and eat it too, delivering views on modern culture but retaining a human element. Various episodes switch around these topical gears, commentary that extends from dating to finding a place to eat on Yelp. It also helps that these details are perfectly drawn, clearly from a tech-savvy source rather than someone trying to imitate the young folk. And 20/30-somethings aren’t the only age group Ansari and Yang have on the mind. A late episode, titled “Old People”, has Dev spend time with his girlfriend’s grandmother. While that could rest easily on any number of elderly clichés, the show enriches the conversation with a look at how age is often little more than a number. Rather than settling on lazy tropes of wacky grandparents or syrupy interludes about the wisdom of the aged, Master of None finds a perfect middle ground.

This extends to nearly everything in the show’s view: an offer of humanity for anyone simply trying to make it in the world. That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t primarily punchlines (Todd Barry shows up as a Michael Bay-esque director, and his cartoonish elements hit the exact right notes). But it does mean that every group of people is offered a chance to speak their peace. That’s especially true in two cases: one episode that focuses on Indian characters on American TV, and another on women as a whole.

The former opens with a withering montage of everything from Apu on The Simpsons to Ashton Kutcher’s disastrous brown-face Pop Chips commercial. From there, the episode doesn’t hold back, featuring a plot that has a TV network head e-mail a racist joke, and Dev left with the dilemma on how to properly leverage this blackmail. No simple answers are delivered on what precisely needs to be solved, or how to do it, though a scene near the end delightfully sends up even the supposedly well-intentioned. Through it all, Ansari and Yang deliver a side-eye look at the world, shaking their head in disbelief more than scolding. This doesn’t feel like a diatribe as much as some obvious truths finally getting their time in the light.

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, the show’s second best installment, turns that focus onto women. This too begins with a sequence of moments that feel like a lecture at first, though delivered by thoughtfully written characters. Then it shifts, disappointingly it seems, back to Dev’s perspective, allowing him to be a hero for championing equal rights for women. But that’s not the last word the episode has to say, layering on a final critique of how even kind men can be complete dullards when it comes to gender politics. Best of all, this episode was written by two women and directed by Lynn Shelton, Ansari & Yang aware of their limitations in starting this particular exchange.

And, it should be said, that all of these are handled with an extraordinary sense of humor and a keen visual eye. In addition to Shelton, the director line-up includes Ansari, Wareheim and James Ponsoldt. The latter sets the tone of the series by directing the pilot, giving the color palate an autumnal feel that allows for sharp bursts of reds or blues as necessary. He also captures a young couple dancing in a way that recalls the close of his most recent film, The End of the Tour, and adds a brief impressionistic vibe to the third episode. Wareheim is given the most work, directing four episodes, and delivers tremendously, especially in the season’s penultimate installment.

That half-hour, along with many others, deals with Master of None’s other main genre component: the romantic comedy. The season opens with a sex scene between Dev and Rachel (Noel Wells). Their evening veers off course quite dramatically, but Rachel finds her way back into the story and winds up sticking around for the long haul. Their first date, in “Nashville” sets the tone of their relationship, filled with cute, authentic banter and a clear connection. With this material, Master of None is reminiscent of the recent Obvious Child. Both use elements of a potentially worn-out label and reinvigorate by concerning themselves with character first, and relationship second. Rachel is given enough space to be her own person with inner conflict that grows as the season progresses. Their interactions stem from a clear place of hope, a knowing sense that in this climate finding somebody worth loving isn’t something you should give up. Wells gives the season’s best performance, placing her immensely charming demeanor alongside a richer interior heart.

Then comes that aforementioned episode nine, “Mornings”, which might be the best piece of television released this year. From July through the following June, a single half-hour captures an entire year of a relationship. Small fights balloon into insurmountable conflicts, a present grows into a token of apathy, jobs are offered and lost and gained. “Mornings” spends enough time on the details to make the more poignant moments land. Wareheim is brilliant here behind the camera, switching between close-up and wider shots that captures the way a relationship can tumble and repair itself over the course of twelve months. A deep, unabashed thrill hits once the episode’s conceit reveals itself, and the feeling lingers throughout. This is something special, an entire film condensed perfectly to thirty minutes.

How “Mornings” end speaks to the final and best trick Master of None manages to pull off. For all the talk of the episode, which is given the majority of space here, there’s a subtle serialization that gives those individual moments a grander weight. “Mornings” closes with a montage flashing back to the relationship at its center. The season finale picks up that thread and collapses all the disparate pieces into one. Yet, as impressive as this all is, it doesn’t erase how important each half-hour is on its own. This is one of the few shows delivered on a streaming service where you could offer up any episode to a viewer and they could invest themselves immediately. Master of None pulls this off by taking all of those unique ideas and placing them in a single context: the mind of Aziz Ansari. His comedy’s staccato rhythm bleeds throughout the show. So does his generosity, and ability to shape characters & their complex relationships with one another. Pulsating with life, humor and kindness, Master of None is the best argument yet for Ansari as a voice of a generation.

Grade: A

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.