We talk a lot these days about TV shows changing landscapes and “breaking the internet” and all other manner of grandiose praises, to the point that it’s frustrating to be taken seriously when a show comes along that actually does do those things. We are all The Boy Who Cried Best Thing Ever. And now, I’m not saying that Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show Master of None is The Best Thing Ever, but it is something so different, and so genuinely good, that it’s surprising, and worth taking note of.
Like many of you, I have mixed feelings on Aziz Ansari. I’m head over heels in love with Tom Haverford and have been for the better part of the last decade. But I find myself consistently underwhelmed by Ansari’s standup. Master of None is a combination of the best elements of both (a majorly toned down but still charming and adorable persona exploring issues of dating, family, and general Millennial malaise), coming together to create something extraordinary. This show is, ostensibly, a comedy, although the times I actually laughed out loud were few. (Not to undersell it— there are some hilarious set-ups, like when Ansari and his girlfriend honky the tonk out of a Nashville bar, or when Ansari has to do a Skype audition for the greatest fake action movie of the decade in a coffee shop.) Where the beauty of Master of None lies is in its structure. Airing on Netflix rather than a television network allows each episode to lie somewhere between episodic sitcom and short film. It’s a little bit of everything, all of it done spectacularly well.
Every episode of Master of None has elements that build, like a traditional show. If you’ve seen Ansari’s standup or read his book, you know that he’s somewhat obsessed with dating in the age of texting and social media. So a lot of the episodes follow his character Dev’s dating life, getting advice from his phenomenal supporting cast of friends Denise (Lena Waithe), Arnold (Eric Wareheim), and Brian (Kelvin Yu). And the chemistry Ansari has with Noel Wells (who you may recognize from lasting only one season at SNL, and who clearly deserved better) is off the charts amazing. The ease the two share in their little jokes and their irritations is a uniquely natural portrayal of a relationship that feels almost a little too intimate to enjoy. But while the show could easily be a really great outlier in the romcom genre, it doesn’t rest there. Some of the show’s best moments are the tiny interactions between Dev and Rachel, but the best full episodes tackle larger issues. And because the episodes feels so self-contained, each is allowed to be completely different from what came before it. The first episode, “Plan B,” is about Dev and his friends not being ready to have settle down and have kids— typical 30-something crisis comedy material. But the second episode, titled “Parents,” has Dev and his Chinese American friend Brian attempting to connect with their parents, whom they’ve realized they’ve never actually thanked for their sacrifices. The episode is broken up with flashbacks to different points in their parents’ lives, everything they’ve suffered and struggled through so that their children feel comfortable— comfortable enough to not have time to help their parents sync their iPads because they don’t want to miss the trailers to an X-Men movie. (And, by the way, Ansari’s own parents play Dev’s mother and father and completely steal every single scene they’re in.) In other episodes, Ansari tackles issues of aging, racism in entertainment, and also offers up the single most depressingly honest wedding vows imaginable.
If all you know of Ansari is his Parks and Rec character, “understated” might not be what you expect from him. But Master of None, with all its early-Woody Allen inspiration (from quiet New York explorations to classic title cards), is funny and cutting, but in a way that comes at you from the side. Having all ten episodes available on Netflix, the show feels easy to binge because of the intimate, naturalistic banter, until you are eight episodes in and it hits you that watching such a realistic portrayal of people’s lives is more emotionally draining than you realized. The show was co-created with Park & Recreation producer (and Mouserat member) Alan Yang, and credits the late Harris Wittels as a writer and producer, and has the feel of something created by very smart, talented friends who had a lot to say and no existing outlet, so they created one. How lucky we all are that this show was created at a time when there are platforms like Netflix that let them experiment with form and structure and genre. Master of None is a ten-episode gift that lies outside the boxes it may have otherwise been forced to squeeze into.