Review: “Master of None,” Season 1

I’ve never had anything against Aziz Ansari, though until recently I wouldn’t have called myself a fan. He got a ton of acclaim for his character on Parks and Rec, Tom Haverford, which made sense; good-hearted scallawags tend to click with people. Plus it helps that Ansari has the useful comedic skill of making self-deprecation look like self-aggrandizement. But while most people found Tom adorable, I found him grating. And I fell asleep during Ansari’s standup special.

So when I started watching Master of None, I was a bit shocked by how much I liked it. It’s beyond merely a well-crafted show—it’s bold. Aziz still gets a little too cutesy for me, but in this show his humor has an acrid bite. People have been calling it, not inaccurately, an “auteur sitcom,” like Louie and Girls. Ansari and Alan Yang, the show’s co-writer/producer, clearly have something to say. What an uncommon, exhilarating thing. Master of None is willing to engage with serious, adult material, and it refuses to draw patronizing conclusions or “teachable moments” from that material.

Not that I think the show’s fantastic. In fact, I find the near-unanimous critical enthusiasm for it totally mind-boggling. Sure, Master of None takes on a lot, both stylistically and thematically, but it fails about as often as it succeeds. It’s just good enough just often enough to make its shortcomings maddening. I recently finished another new Netflix series, the four-episode Mr. Show revamp, w/Bob and David, which makes the old “less-is-more” adage look pretty seductive. If Master of None had consisted of episodes 1, 2, 4 and 5, I’d be calling it the greatest thing on not-exactly-TV. Hell, throw in episodes 3, 9 and 10 and it’d still be one of the best shows of the year. Alas…

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In Master of None, Ansari plays a 30-something commercial actor, Dev, basically a less successful version of Ansari himself. We get two types of episodes: “Dev Wrestling with a Thorny Issue” and “Dev’s Relationship Escapades.” Both types allow for a good range of flexibility in tone and subject matter, and both result in bullseyes and misfires. Sometimes the show offers an original, personal, and (most importantly) funny point of view; sometimes it leans heavily on cutesy bullshit. In my mind, I’ve plotted each of these episodes on a graph, the X-axis representing a scale of the show’s proclivity toward an adolescent or adult worldview, and the Y-axis  a scale from Thorny Issues to Relationship Escapades.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to plot a graph on a computer, so I’m just going to keep blabbering…

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The first few episodes of the series are by far the best. It cold-opens mid-coitus, just as Dev’s condom breaks; a tense Google search and a late-night Uber ride to pick up Plan B (and apple juice) ensues. The humor’s centered a little too much on the millennial quirks of Dev and the girl he’s hooking up with, Rachel (Noel Wells, formerly of SNL), for my taste—and that is part of what will sour the show later on—but this scene understatedly balances drama and humor, and its specificity makes fresh comedy from an awkward predicament we’ve seen a zillion times.

“Plan B” is about a guy reckoning with the prospect of having children, and it’s really deftly handled. Dev gets saddled with his friend’s kids for the day, and finds himself in situations that oscillate between sweet (playing in the park, getting ice cream) and horrifying (“We can’t sell waffles that have made contact with a young boy’s genitals.”) The prospect of parenthood seems daunting at first, but it increasingly starts to look fulfilling, and then all of a sudden it becomes horrifying. There’s honesty in this multivalence that’s hard to find in sitcoms.

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“Parents” and “Indians on TV”—the second and fourth episodes—are the best, no doubt. Tonally they are very similar: blunt and dark and funny, and most funny at their darkest and bluntest. They nail Dev’s uneasy feelings in the same way “Plan B” does, but they take on topics that are more unique to Ansari (though hardly unique in a wider sense): immigration and racism. These subjects are woefully underrepresented in the world of sitcoms, and when they are tackled, mostly it’s in the form of teachable, feel-good (or feel-bad) TV. Ansari turns this trope on its head—if there’s a straightforward lesson to be learned, it’s that life’s too complicated for straightforward lessons.

“Parents” starts as Dev and his friend Brian each rebuff simple requests from their fathers, and the show flashes-back to the fathers’ brutal upbringings in India and Taiwan, returning to the present as their sons tell them that no, we can’t spend time with you, we don’t want to miss X-Men trivia. Dev and Brian later feel bad for ignoring their dads, so they take their families out to a joint dinner, revel in their shocking stories, and then, when it’s over, go back to ignoring their parents. No matter how interesting their lives might have been, all parents are intrinsically bothersome.

From the title, you can imagine the subject of “Indians on TV.” There’s not much I can say except that it’s basically perfect, and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya over at A.V. Club does a better job than I can at explaining why. Take a minute and read her article. Or better yet, watch the episode. 

Of the two, I think I preferred “Parents,” probably because I found it more relatable. With some art, the goal is recognition, understanding that there are people out there like you, that you’re not alone, but with other art, unfamiliarity—access to other people, lives you couldn’t imagine—is the point. The effectiveness of “Indians on TV” rests on how un-relatable it is, at least to me.

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Episode 3, ”Hot Ticket,” is the first full episode devoted to Dev’s Romantic Escapades, and though it’s pretty funny, it introduces some problems that will plague Master of None later on.

Dev navigates the perils of finding a date for a concert, but it quickly becomes predictable as, once the fretting is over and the date begins, things go south. The hot girl does a Cartman impression! The hot girl steals purses and gets in fights! Like I said, its funny, but in a commonplace way, embodying a trope without subverting it. That’s no damnable sin, but it’s still a disappointment.

The second of Dev’s Romantic Escapades, “The Other Man,” mostly works. Here’s the show at it’s most Curb Your Enthusiasm-y; a gorgeous married woman (played by Claire Danes, who seems like she’s having a great time), wants to have sex with Dev, and Dev declines…until the husband cuts him in line at the ice cream shop.

The stakes are high and the jokes all land, but the ending is bizarrely optimistic. It seemed like an easy way out, an excuse that smooths out all the moral wrinkles. I have the same problem with the finale, in fact, which also tries too hard to put a happy face on a dark situation. Like the finale (which is called “Finale”), it’s mostly funny and effective, but some unfortunate dramatic choices keep it from reaching really a impressive level of storytelling.

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Midway through the season is where things fall apart.

“Nashville” is by far the worst episode of Master of None. It nearly caused me to give up on the show, and had the first half of the season not been so strong, I think I would have. The most generous thing I can say about it is that it’s uncompromising, and, judging from the feedback I’ve heard, it clicked with a lot of people. But I think it clicked because it’s easy, empty wish fulfillment.

This episode depicts of the Greatest Date of All Time, when Dev takes Rachel for a weekend in Nashville. There’s not much by way of plot, conflict, character development, or really anything besides cloying lovey-dovey frivolity. It reminded me of Richard Linklater’s godawful “Before” trilogy, minus all the pretentious babble, and in an interview Ansari himself confirmed my suspicion:

[Linklater] has been a huge influence on me, and he has been for a few years. Before Sunset, in particular—I love that movie, and I was trying to figure out how to make the dialogue in Master Of None feel conversational and natural…I was trying to think of “What dialogue have I heard that sounds really natural?”, and to me, it was that Linklater stuff.

To me, “that Linklater stuff” sounds the opposite of natural. Which is a shame because I really like the idea of this episode. The best romances make a plot of falling love. Too often love is either treated like an inevitability the characters resist, or it is taken for granted in favor of outside obstacles. But falling in love is a weird thing, tentative and meteoric, awkward and blissful— both funny and dramatic. “Nashville” has lots of (putatively) adorable chemistry, but it’s all just chatter, chatter, chatter. There’s no sense of discovery, beyond the newness of being in a new place. There’s no interiority, either. The only tension that exists is superficial.

Rachel wants to get on a flight back in time to see her niece’s recital, but Dev immaturely ignores her concerns, and they miss the flight, and she immaturely throws a little hissy fit. The stupidity of it all is totally believable, but the audience is supposed to find these characters endearing. It’s a little too easy to find them insufferable.

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The sixth episode is another misstep. In “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Dev goes back to Wrestling with a Thorny Issue: entrenched everyday sexism. Some good storytelling choices are evident, but Ansari doesn’t quite have anything interesting to contribute to this subject. And though they made the wise choice of bringing two women in to write the episode (Sarah Peters and and Zoe Jarman) and a third to direct it (Lynn Shelton), they still seem afraid to mine the subject for humor. There’s lots of Dev sitting around with women explaining the fucked up things men do to them on a daily basis. It becomes more of a lecture on the ordinariness of sexism—something I hope a guy Dev’s age would’ve figured out already—than a comedic investigation into it. Perhaps would not have been an advisable route to take, the danger of a male-centric show joking about gendered violence. But if you can’t make light of something, you shouldn’t make it the focus of your sitcom.

In “Old People,” Dev learns that old people are people too. No need for further inquiry, yeah? Yeah. In any event, the show gets mostly back on track in the final two eps, both of which are Dev’s Romantic Escapades.

Ansari likes to take an idea and stretch it far as he thinks it’ll go, and in “Mornings.” he pulls it off. Rachel move in with Dev, and over a year of mornings we see the ordinary but poignant ups and downs in their relationship. I might’ve found it genuine because I found it relatable, though too much of it was cutesy filler for my taste. (Maybe “Nashville” was still sour on my tongue.) The problems the characters face are also a little too broad, a little too easy to project yourself onto. But that’s nitpicking; overall “Mornings” is an appealing return to form.

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Most of “Finale” felt authentic, but the premise of its conflict is that Dev’s not 100% certain that he’ll want to be with Rachel for the rest of his life, and he needs a sagely older man to explain that’s not how relationships work—hardly a noteworthy epiphany. Dev makes a bunch of dumb, anxiety-driven choices, and torpedoes his relationship with Rachel. The season concludes with both Rachel and Dev abruptly dropping everything in their lives and move to Japan and Italy, respectively. Perhaps its that vapid earlier epiphany in “Finale,” but it seems like the show endorses this immature, impulsive life choice. Yeah, Dev’s anxiety over his future is gone, but at what cost?

It’s not just this episode. Earlier in the season, Nashville was treated like a perfect place. Dev and Rachel falling in love was put in parallel to their exploration of Nashville; they only had relationship problems in New York. It’d be one thing if it were Dev and Rachel who made a fetish out of fleeing the city, but nothing about the show itself indicates that there’s anything questionable about this. In the end, Master of None suffers from being a little too in love with its characters. 

There’s a beautiful sequence in the season’s final minutes where Dev reads the famous fig tree passage from The Bell Jar, and we see all the paths his life can take on split-screen. But then Dev abruptly decides to bounce town, turning that passage from The Bell Jar into a call to action, which I don’t think was Plath’s intent.

Nowhere to be found is the show’s earlier, admirable ambivalence.  Put charitably, it’s a wholehearted, albeit superficial, embrace of uncertainty. Put uncharitably, Master of None winds up being an endorsement of ditching your friends, family, ambitions, and responsibilities in pursuit of a childish fantasy. 

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Two sets of peripheral characters embody where I think the show succeeds and where it falls on its face.

Dev’s parents, Ramesh and Nisha, were played by Ansari’s real-life parents, Shoukath and Fatima. The Ansaris are delightfully godawful actors, and they were a highlight of the show for me. I can see how for some this could’ve been an annoying casting choice, and I imagine for many viewers they were merely charming, but I came to see their performances’ very shittiness as a fissure in the so-called “fourth wall.” They were free of artifice, and as a result so was their relationship with their son, in all its sweetness, hilarity, discomfort. Ramesh in particular was a scene-stealer: a brilliant, audacious, perfect casting choice. 

On the other side, Dev’s friend Denise really bothered me. For one, I don’t really see a cool black lesbian spending so much time with a group of nerdy straight single guys, but I’d buy it if not for her dialogue. Now, not being a lesbian myself, I freely admit that my judgement might be off. So I can only speak from my own experience, and when Denise talks about sex and relationships, she sounds to me more like a straight man talking to straight men than a gay woman talking to straight men.  

Denise, like Master of None‘s worst impulses, seems like the Perfect Best Friend crafted by a well-meaning writers’ room. Dev’s parents, like everything good about the show, are an uncomfortable, imperfect jolt of authenticity.

Denise was in seven of the ten episodes. Ramesh appeared in three.

 

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