[This is a review of Master of None season 1 and will include details of the first few episodes. There will be mild SPOILERS.]
Aziz Ansari is perhaps best known for his role as Tom Haverford on NBC's Parks & Recreation. But as both a standup comedian and author, Ansari has demonstrated another side of himself that goes well beyond the hyper, couture-loving, tech-obsessed excesses of his sitcom character. And now, with his new Netflix series, Master of None, the Ansari looks to funnel the more personal nature of his routines and his writing into a semi-autobiographical sitcom that explores familiar territory with charm, compassion, and wit, making recognizable comedy tropes feel fresh as a result of the angle from which they are approached.
From the first episode on, it is clear how perfectly suited Master of None is to the bing-watching format popularized by every Netflix series. And yet, more so than recent efforts from the streaming giant, Ansari's low-key hangout comedy rewards the viewer for tuning in to the next episode immediately. Part of that is due to the 30-minute runtime of the show – something that is less a priority for hour-long dramas, like Orange is the New Black or Narcos. Not that that has stopped most viewers from binging either of those series or anything else Netflix has to offer. It's more like Master of None feels uniquely suited to the task of giving the audience something to binge on because it makes such a concerted effort to provide them with something different and unique during each outing, successfully presenting it through the lens that is Ansari's distinct perspective.
And it is that perspective that allows it to become a standout so early on. Although the series has beats and tones that resemble early Woody Allen films and, more recently comedian Louie C.K.'s Louie, the personal nature of Master of None distinguishes it from its comedy forefathers, lending the comedy an impressive level of authenticity and originality. Its flights of fancy – which change radically from the first episode to the second and third – feel born of a desire to serve the specific worldview of Ansari's character, while at the same make the series attractive and palatable to a broad range of audiences.
Ansari plays Dev, a semi-employed New York actor in his early thirties, trying to figure out what he wants from life and, more importantly, what life has to offer him. The series isn't exactly breaking new ground in terms of milieu or narrative, in that it is the kind of young-man-in-search-of-himself comedy-drama so many indie filmmakers and young writers in MFA programs cut their teeth on. In fact, if you were to compare just the description of it with, say, Louie, you might be of a mind to think it was a prequel to the fortysomething comedian's often surreal, artful, existential, and sometimes-cynical ponderings.
And while similarities exist in concept, the two shows differ dramatically in terms of execution and, especially in terms of perspective. As an Indian-American in a lead role on a remarkably diverse show he also serves as writer and executive producer on, Ansari is in the unique position of allowing his perspective and experiences to dictate the sort of stories being told. As such, in the first few episodes, Master of None manages to broach everything from emotional and romantic maturity, the fears and pressures of becoming a parent, the nebulous world of technology, texting, social media and dating, and even racism in Hollywood.
Through each and every topic and episodic narrative, Ansari and his terrific supporting cast – which includes Noël Wells as a potential romantic interest Rachel, Kelvin Yu, Eric Warheim (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and producer, writer, and actress Lena Waithe – are most interested in exploring every idea through a set of distinct perspectives. Most often, this comes down to Dev and one or two of his friends, as in the first episode, 'Plan B,' which focuses on Dev's doubts about whether or not he's ready to settle down and start a family. After a short afternoon spent caring for a friend's two children, and running into the kind of obstacles one typically associates with caring for kids, the episode culminates with Dev being presented with a choice – eat a delicious chicken Parmesan sandwich that he really wants or consume a peanut butter, lettuce, and ketchup sandwich prepared for him by the two tykes who ran in ragged in the span of a few hours. The decision Dev makes is obvious and perhaps a little insubstantial as far as the series is concerned, but it works to illustrate path that he will find himself on for the remaining nine episodes, as he walks the precarious line between the looming responsibilities and expectations of adulthood and the joys of youthful indiscretions.
While the first episode is funny and charming, Master of None gets even better when it chooses to be insightful, and dive into a fictionalized (but not too fictionalized) account of Ansari's personal and professional experiences. In episode two, 'Parents,' Dev and his friend Brian (Yu) explore what it's like to be a first generation American. This leads to both men attempting to make an effort to get to know their parents (in this case, Ansari's real parents Fatima and Shoukath Ansari) adding another level of charm, personal experience, and perspective to the series.
Along with co-creator Alan Yang, Ansari has crafted a smart, funny comedy that may not always be as original as it could have been, but goes after its stories with gusto and panache nonetheless. Touching on everything from race and sociopolitical issues, to romance and maturity, the show's creators come away with far more hits than misses – an astonishing statistic considering they created the series from whole cloth. Whatever missteps there are (and they are remarkably few) only adds to the charm of the series overall, as it hints at a creative exuberance and willingness to explore and be insightful even when it is not necessarily successful. And it is that particular mindset that will serve them well as the series (hopefully) continues on into season 2.
Master of None is available in its entirety on Netflix.
Photos: KC Bailey/Netflix