Aziz Ansari has always annoyed me. His ultra-sophomoric demeanor and “please don’t hate me” faux-desperation on the stage and in film has always rung false, stale, and meticulously fabricated. Yes, Tom Haverford, the popular character he became well known for on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, is amusing, but only when juxtaposed against the stoic, conservative masculinity exuded by his polar opposite Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman, who is by turns a more palatable alternative to those less than amenable to the basic aesthetic playfulness and disingenuous repartee of the millennial milieu.
Ansari has worked well in the past, as seen in Funny People and on the ill-advised final season of Scrubs, where his personality’s preening wit was situated within characters whom the audience was never meant to outright love, but instead come to understand as caricatures of much larger and more nuanced social archetypes. As a stand-in for the very worst that his generation has to offer, Ansari has for a long time now been synonymous with entitlement and an exceedingly capricious intellect.
Enter Master of None, Ansari’s first original series for Netflix, and my opinion of him must take into account the young comedian’s obvious acknowledgements of the very same faults that have instilled such a distinct distrust of his character in my own being. Not only does his new show, which was co-created and co-written by former Parks and Recreation writer and producer Alan Yang, boast a multi-ethnic, subversively entertaining satire on the basic prejudices still prevalent in a culture that hypocritically prides itself on being forward thinking and politically correct, but it also examines some of the underlying insecurities of a persona that had seemed heretofore callous and unfeeling. It’s always been hard for me to empathize and identify with Ansari, but in Master of None, a lot of the things that have always bothered me are made into some of the best jokes and most cathartic comedy beats.
In the past, characters like Tom Haverford, or Ansari’s seemingly autobiographical Randy stand-up character in Funny People, have come off as near literal representations of the man portraying them. At times, the line between fact and fiction appears to blur when following the trajectory of Ansari’s fairly prolific filmography, and given the consistency of personality and bravado across individual projects, Ansari on the stage and on the screen becomes the only version of him with which viewers have to identify him as a person. While this phenomenon is certainly not uncommon, especially among television actors who become synonymous with iconic characters on air, and later on in syndication, ad nausea, Ansari can be exceedingly difficult to observe outside of that role.
On his new show, Ansari and Yang experiment with peeling back the many layers of anti-social anxiety and preemptive insincerity that the Millennial generation depicted in the program’s central drama ensconce themselves within in an effort to appear cool without affect. In the show, Ansari’s alter ego Dev, his girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells), his best guy friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim), and his girl friend Denise (Lena Waithe) largely submerge themselves within the youth culture of the present moment that by turns comes off entirely without intimacy beyond the shadow-play of courtship enacted across the many facets of the digital age. However, instead of delving too deeply into any reductive take-downs of “Generation Me,” Master of None surreptitiously gets at many of its twenty to thirty-something’s most critical shortcomings, revealing the people that they see looking back at them without the façade of any contemporaneously enforced, socio-cultural impetus of personality.
Moreover, in attempting to deconstruct the very same cult of personality that has made Ansari into a household name, Master of None deftly represents the zeitgeist of the popular culture as it currently stands without apology. Accordingly, any insincerity that bleeds through the Dev character is at least partially based in Ansari’s ability to self-reflect, and the show is the first instance wherein Ansari may be seen as commenting upon something larger than the artifice with which he surrounds himself in terms of his outward appearance, fictive or not. Dev is unlikable not because he’s self-involved and blissfully unaware of how he may come off to those outside of his immediate social circle of well-to-do, aging hipster Brooklynites, but because Ansari as an actor and a writer is able to cast the light of social satire upon the character, and by extension, himself.
Objectively, there is little that is different about the way in which Ansari presents himself as a focus for cinematic comedy in his new show that is any different from anything that he has done before. Dev is like Tom Haverford in an inherent inability to see very far beyond his own ego and unearned self-importance, his decision to become a working actor one born out of preposterous serendipity and predestined, bourgeois delusions of grandeur not all that dissimilar from Haverford’s numerous enterprises of ill-repute and bad intentions. Dev is not a good actor in the same way that Randy from Funny People is not a good stand up comedian, in that both characters are possessed by a populist image of themselves as belonging to a culture that trades on cheap disposability in entertainment, resulting in hammy acting and gimmicky jokes. Master of None exudes the same dogmatic sense of passing amusements being equated with legitimate insight and brilliance, but it comes around to taking a much more somber appraisal of its primary character. Essentially, Dev is a tragic fool where Haverford and Randy are mere narrative fodder constructed for the sake of sheer convenience, which makes Master of None Ansari’s first masterstroke as an actor and a comedian.
There’s plenty to say about the ways in which the first season addresses issues as vast and varied as the entitlement of second-generation Americans of international descent, sexism at the workplace, and ageism in general, but that’s only a small part of what makes Master of None so special. Ansari and Yang, more than presenting a parody of themselves and the people they know, have offered a show that delves into the kind of distancing from and of the self that such comedy entails, and attempt a mock apology on the behalf of an entire generation of disaffected youth unable to reach very far beyond their own depicted insincerity. Ansari might still be annoying, but at least he’s trying to come to terms with his own shortcomings in a way altogether fitting of his sensibilities and dawning maturity.
Featured Image: Netflix