I like Aziz Ansari. I was a fan of his performance as the irritating but amusing Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec and his stand-up specials, available on Netflix, are highly enjoyable. He’s a great comedian for audiences entering their 30’s, and his astute observations on the common themes in that stage in life (settling down, having babies [or not], the mystery of what to do with life, comprehending our ingratitude towards a generation that gave up a lot so that we could be the people we are, AND MORE) resonated with me, but that’s probably because this year I turned 30 and became a dad.
I was unsure what to expect with Master of None. Ansari is a talented comic actor, but it was hard to guess if he’d be a strong enough lead to sustain an entire show.
It’s the tale of Dev, a single man in his early 30’s trying to navigate everyday life in New York while juggling relationships, family, friends and work. Reading that back, it doesn’t sound like anything special, does it? Didn’t Friends have that times six?
But there’s a unique flavour that runs through the show which makes it a truly modern comedy that doesn’t feel like the well-worn sitcoms of the last few decades. Modern Family also does it well, but there’s no equivalent for people in their late 20’s or early 30’s who aren’t in such a close familial situation.
You expect the issue of race to feature heavily within the show, but it doesn’t dominate. There are misconceptions about Indians, in particular the way they’re typecast in film and television, but it’s done in a clever way that doesn’t stoop to the easy laughs. There’s also a diverse supporting cast which epitomises modern multicultural society, but Ansari does give his heritage a nod , featuring his parents as themselves and an array of fellow Indian-American actors.
Another great, modernising aspect to the program is the way that it’s filmed. Not being astute in technical terms I can only say that it looks like a film, not a television show – let alone a comedy. It’s cinematic – there’s a shade and a shooting style that provides not just a professional look but an air of real-life authenticity that stands out. It feels far more real than any pseudo-reality comedy like The Office or the previously mentioned Parks and Rec.
The laughs are well constructed, even if most of them won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen Ansari’s stand-up. It’s obvious that he’s had time to work with and refine the material, and the laughs are strong and relatable.
The stuff based on his existing material is great, and Ansari reminds us all that he’s a fantastic comedic actor who’s nowhere near as petulant as Tom Haverford, but it’s when the show attempts to take heartfelt or dramatic twists that it starts to lack. For all his affability and the sincerity he brings to the role, Ansari is far more one-dimensional as a ‘serious’ actor, but it may be because comedy comes so naturally to him.
There are plenty of organic scenes where you’re more focussed on what’s being said than the performance itself, but in one particular episode that focuses solely on the relationship Dev develops with Rachel (Noël Wells) over the course of months, you feel the show was striving for something far more dramatic and rounded than it accomplishes.
Rachel herself becomes an increasingly frustrating character, perhaps because her interactions with Dev require more and more seriousness that I may have ended up resenting her for. The supporting performances of Eric Wareheim, Alan Yang and Lena Waithe are great, and the cameos from the likes of H. John Benjamin, Claire Danes and Colin Salmon will leave a lasting impression, but Rachel was a character I increasingly wanted to see less of. This could have been the aim all along, a perfect representation of the characters feelings and an indication that Wells played the role to a tee, and if that’s the case well done! The show definitely needed her, but not that much.
Another great element was the scene-stealing performances of Ansari’s (real) father, playing himself. His inclusion was a great decision by Ansari to add yet another layer of realism, but his mother’s decision to do the same should have been rethought. Neither of them can really act, but his father brings joy and enthusiasm to the role, while his mum brings a rigidity that doesn’t play as well.
The social commentary and situations that Dev faces often reap more laughs than the characters themselves, but that’s probably a good thing because Dev doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere fast at times. He’s indecisive, with lofty ambitions countered by a fear of taking a leap of great magnitude like his parents did – although going to Nashville on a first date with a girl who was with her ex-boyfriend while flirting with you seems like a totally normal thing to do. He’s fired up about things, but the changes he affects aren’t always the ones he wants to see. In these respects he’s like most 30 year olds, and no doubt what I would be like if I hadn’t found a happy relationship and the next stage in life.
But I have, and perhaps that’s why the ‘dramas’ of Dev’s position are more difficult for me to relate to, but it shows me the benefits of making the life choices I have in the past few years. I like watching Dev’s life, but I don’t really want it… except his swanky apartment.
That still can’t detract from the fact that Master of None is a highly enjoyable show that doesn’t rely on the old well-worn tropes of the majority of studio comedies and sitcoms that we’ve all endured over the last few decades. It’s a breath of fresh air and right for this time in human history. It has weaknesses, but these are far outweighed by its strengths.
IN CONCLUSION: I don’t know that I’d hang out with the characters in Master of None, but I’m more than happy to watch. If you’re in your early 30’s, I’d almost call this compulsory viewing. If you’re not, enjoy the way its shot and the commentary on misogyny, subtle racism and more. They’re timeless themes tackled with a modern approach.
THE GOOD: Ansari can lead, the writing is great, feels incredibly fresh, shot beautifully.
THE BAD: Dramatic moments fall flat, Rachel.