Overview: An actor tries to become more self-aware and understanding while juggling work, family, and relationships. 2015; Netflix; 10 episodes.
The Importance: Art can be powerful. It can evoke specific emotions or memories for people to latch onto. Art is also the vision of its creator, perhaps not wholly representative of the creator’s specific identity while still expressing a deeper want or need – allowing the creator to express self-reflection within fiction. Some of the most important artistic endeavors begin a vital discussion in relation to empathy and the current state of affairs (“affairs,” in this context, referencing anything happening at this exact point and time). Master of None accomplishes all of this as simply as calling an uber to take you and a date to pick up a Plan B pill after your condom breaks.
That’s not a joke: Master of None is the best show on Netflix. My confidence in this statement is as certain as the show’s confidence in its ability to nail observational comedy.
The Star: Aziz Ansari stars as Dev Shah, a struggling actor trying to make his way in the world. Along the way he attempts to understand relationships, his heritage, and where his life is headed. This isn’t a cheap attempt at faux existentialism. For a show dealing with uncertainty and social anxieties, Master of None is strikingly self-assured. No measure of sitcom checklists dilute a level-headed and morally fascinating television show.
Ansari has created an extension of his stand up routines but with the added artistic flare of Louis C.K. and Chris Rock. Those familiar with Ansari’s standup will find an extension and further exploration of his recurring ideas on race, sex, and relationships. Individual episodes are devoted to specific ideas, with the first bringing up what it’s like to raise kids. It’s a great premiere that sets the stage for something special.
The series comes to fruition by the second episode, entitled “Parents.” Ansari’s real-life parents portray themselves in a story revolving around Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin). As first generation Americans, Dev and Brian attempt to understand their parents and show more appreciation for what they’ve sacrificed. It’s a heart-warming and heartbreaking look at relationships between parents and siblings, later joined by a companion piece episode (“Old People”) that serves as a reminder that there are no age requirements in the human desire to experience life to the fullest.
The Discussion: It’s difficult to highlight any episode as a “standout” when all the episodes bring up a necessary discussion and an excellent example of observational comedy.
“Indians on TV” brings up the issue of representation and manages to become one of the best TV episodes of the year. In the episode, two Indian men talk about their unhappiness with a studio executive who tells them there can’t be two Indian characters on a show for fear of it being deemed an “Indian show.” The rest of the season could have been terrible and this stroke of genius alone would have been worth recommending endlessly, if only for the line: “They got a real robot and a fake Indian.”
If there is a pick for “most important episode,” that title would likely go to “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The opening of the episode situates two vastly different parallel experiences at a bar between Dev and Diana, his co-star in a barbecue commercial. While Dev and his friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) enjoy their drinks and discuss slight but irrelevant annoyances about trying to hit on women in bars, Diana is harassed by a drunken moron. While Dev and Arnold walk home laughing, Diana remains wary on her way home as the harasser follows her to her house and she is forced to call for assistance. It’s a peak moment for the series, as it remains aware of the serious nature of the material but asks us to laugh at the ridiculous moment when Dev insists he had a bad night at the bar until Rachel divulges the horrifying situation. Dev’s not an asshole, he’s only learning about another perspective besides his own. He can’t relate but he works to understand. It’s reflective of the show which asks you– nay, pleads with you– to be considerate of depressingly real circumstances between men and women.
But don’t worry about Master of None being preachy (I mean, it sort of does demand your attention but it’s just well made as a whole). The show maintains an acute ability to hone in on necessary discussions and partake with no easy answers. The writing needs to be witnessed and commended for imbuing honest portrayals of difficult topics, never losing sight of the smaller moments nestled away in the message, and providing constant laughs throughout the 10 episodes. It is an articulation of humanism.
The Form: Although many modern shows are hailed as being cinematic in quality, Master of None has an immediate leg up on all competition thanks to a glorious narrow aspect ratio and fluid camera movements. Stagnant shots are utilized to let moments and characters sit in discovery or uneasiness. The technique is used to solidify central themes in individual stories.
Certain episodes contain flashbacks or dream sequences that buckle down on expressionism. Heightened realities tug on the heartstrings, call to a sense of nostalgia, and paint a picture for a few seemingly standalone episodes to tie together. These individual stories form a backbone of a seasonal arc which only reveals itself in the finale. Dev takes what he learns to better himself as a person. It’s a personal trimph, but he has quite the supporting cast to help him along the way.
Both the world Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have crafted and the language used to express it call to life characters and experiences that feel like a freshly cut slice of life. Dev’s main entourage includes Denise (Lena Waithe) who has the most culturally diverse interests of the group, Rachel (Nöel Wells) a late night hookup who runs into Dev after he abandons his date (long story), and the aforementioned Brian and Arnold. On the set of a movie where Dev is hired, he’s joined by H. Jon Benjamin and the two begin a fun friendship as they divulge brutal honesty about relationships to one another. The acting across the board is subtly human, never unintentionally overstated or too downbeat to be dull. Wells in particular delivers a performance fraught with energy and pathos, her relationship with Dev is free of contrivances and a necessity for obligatory romance. It’s a healthy cultivation of human interaction.
The Understanding: Where we’re from, where we’re going, these sort of concerns might initially seem unimportant or incalculable to you and me. But it does matter that we take notice and help one another along the way. Master of None is a show asking the right, bigger questions about who we are as human beings in the modern world, about our shared experiences, our individual experiences, how we grow from them, and how to better understand one another. Are we living up to our full potential or are we setting unrealistic standards for ourselves? Master of None earnestly documents a generation reflecting on itself and its future.