Master of None Season 1 Review: Ansari as Auteur

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The former Parks and Recreation star’s new Netflix series is equal parts heartwarming and hilarious, adding to the list of unique voices in television.

Please be advised that this review contains minor spoilers from the first season of Master of None.

The auteurist movement is relatively new when it comes to TV, yet, in the years since its establishment, its become a powerful force for storytelling. Louis CK, Lena Dunham, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and several others have used their distinctive points of view to not only craft poignant observational stories, but interesting and complex onscreen alter-egos as well.

Aziz Ansari is the latest artist to jump into the fray with his candid, optimistic, and wholeheartedly authentic take on 30-something life in the city. The subject is nothing new, but Master of None, like all successful auteur projects, thrives in its specificity. A surface look at the series might evoke memories of the earlier seasons of Louie, or even the works of Mr. Woody Allen, who is perhaps the ultimate New York auteur—certainly, the opening title cards suggest an homage to the ladder.

Yet, these comparisons start and end with the show’s appearance. Yes, Master of None is about a somewhat aimless New Yorker named Dev (Ansari), who’s living in the small fringe of life that’s right after your wild 20s, but before the fully adult part of your 30s. It all seems familiar, until it isn’t. The show isn’t out to make Dev some sort of tragic hero of his time, nor does it aim to present him as the ideal model for every soul-searching millennial. Master of None revels in the mundane, filtered through Ansari’s unique perspective.

The actor and comedian is more than up to the challenge of finding the universal within his specific worldview. This isn’t the same Ansari you remember from Parks and Rec, or even his early standup. This is the Ansari of his best-selling book Modern Romance, and bits of his show at Madison Square Garden. He’s learned a lot about life, but he’s still got some growing to do. Luckily, the middle ground he lives in is rife with storytelling opportunity.

His character Dev is a commercial actor who’s never made it big, but is able to coast by thanks to the residual checks from his TV spots. We follow him through his everyday life; the ups and downs of his job, his outings with friends, and his romantic encounters. The show gets interesting, however, in its ability to take this skeleton of a city sitcom and infuse it with a plethora of cultural diversity.

Dev’s friend group is rounded out with characters of different ethnicities, genders, and sexualities, and none of them is ever made to feel like a caricature or a joke. In fact, the show uses them strategically to make some sharp observations about the politics of identity. A scene in the fourth episode “Indians on TV” tackles Hollywood’s often discriminatory nature. The interplay that occurs between Dev, his Asian friend Brian (Kelvin Yu), and his black lesbian friend Denise (the scene-stealing Lena Waithe) is razor sharp, and allows for an honest, and funny, conversation with multiple perspectives. The ease with which these characters are able to discuss such issues reinforces how ridiculous it is that this type of dynamic hasn’t been explored before.

Then there’s Dev himself, whose Indian background plays a significant role in his life without being his defining characteristic. The absolutely stellar second episode “Parents,” deals with how easily he and Brian each take their immigrant families’ hard work for granted (it should be noted that Dev’s parents are played adorably by Ansari’s real-life mom and dad). The show deftly maneuvers itself through this topic, never turning the story into a stern scolding of the main characters for their neglect. Instead, it’s a shrewd examination of the differences between immigrant parents and their first-generation-American children, revealing how these differences both are and aren’t a big deal. It’s a fascinating portrait of intergenerational miscommunication that doesn’t chide either side too harshly, and for that it should be celebrated.

Master of None deals with a lot of important topics with the same sort of effortless tact. The hilarious “Ladies and Gentlemen,” brilliantly exposes the everyday divides between men and women as they go about their days, “The Other Man” pokes some interesting holes in the sanctity of marriage (and features a guest appearance from the lovely Claire Danes), and “Old People” takes an absolutely charming look at the geriatric set.

These are certainly impressive concepts to tackle, especially with the finesse that Ansari does, but they’re not the only reason that Master of None is so special. Truly, the heartbeat of the show is its unabashed sense of positivity. Dev is a hopeful person, and his glass-half-full mentality is contagious amongst his family and friends. This is not to say that the show doesn’t deal with conflict, it definitely does, but its approach always comes with a silver lining. In a sea of dark and cynical television comedies—especially ones set in a major city—this feels incredibly refreshing.

The show doesn’t follow a traditional linear format, but a running narrative throughout the episodes is Dev’s budding relationship with Rachel (Saturday Night Live alum Noël Wells), a music publicist he meets one night at a bar. As the two get closer and closer, viewers may feel a creeping sense of where they’re going to end up, but Master of  None is smart to avoid all the pratfalls of relationship clichés. Dev and Rachel’s journey together is honest; it starts out with an awkward trip to the pharmacy to pick up Plan B and ends somewhere else entirely. The development feels entirely natural, allowing you to easily invest in their happiness without any sense of irony. Truly, it is Ansari’s ideal modern romance, and it’s pretty magical.

Master of None ends on what I initially thought was an abrupt note. Yet, the more and more I think about it, the more genius it becomes. In a short scene, in encompasses everything the show set out to say, and serves as a perfect closer to the season. You’ll have to watch it yourself to see what I mean, but I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed. Ansari’s show may be called Master of None, but he is truly the master of his own domain. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

 

 

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