This article contains spoilers.
Known for his goofy portrayal as Tom Haverford on NBC’s hit comedy “Parks and Recreation” as well as his equally goofy and energetic demeanor as a comedian, Aziz Ansari offers his audience another clever social insight into the life of a millennial with his new television series, “Master of None,” released on Netflix on Friday.
Created by Alan Yang and Ansari, the comedy draws undeniable comparisons to FX’s “Louie,” whose scathing commentary on the purgatory of middle age is a veritable sitcom-ification of Louis CK’s standup material. Similar in its off-kilter approach to television comedy, “Master of None” instead focuses on life as a late-twentysomething, following commercial actor Dev Shah (Ansari) and his group of friends — played by Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe and Kelvin Yu — as they stumble through life in New York.
At first glance, the series seems boringly similar to just about every sitcom focused on a group of friends living in a metropolis. Yet Ansari innovates the exploration of career, love and family through the interactions between his idiosyncratic persona and devastatingly candid — and sometimes awkward — adult situations.
“Plan B,” the first episode of the series, opens with Shah having clumsy sex with Rachel (Noel Wells), a woman he picked up at a bar, before he realizes the condom broke. In a moment of true millennial cringe comedy, the pair argues whether a woman can get pregnant from pre-cum. After coming to the conclusion that in rare cases, pregnancy can occur, they decide to play it safe and visit CVS to buy the Plan B pill. The awkwardness ensues as Shah fumbles with his clothes while calling an UberX, but not before he ensures Rachel that he called the UberX only because it’s closer, not because he doesn’t want to pay for an Uber Black.
When Shah isn’t navigating through the do’s and don’ts of modern etiquette, he’s quietly taking a stance on sociopolitical issues. The social insights that “Master of None” provides through the lens of Shah’s life vary and often provide a thematic focus for each episode. For example, the episode “Indians on TV” discusses the one-dimensionality of ethnic roles on TV, especially for Southeast Asians, such as Shah and Ansari. Indian actors are expected to stick to demeaning stereotypes if they wish to be cast, and they are subjected to the dichotomy of playing either a convenience store owner or a taxi driver, or not being hired at all.
The show’s shrewd criticisms are juxtaposed with the warm way it depicts them, allowing “Master of None” to remain a smart comedy without seeming didactic. The one caveat is that Ansari’s previous standup routines share many similar topics, which can make the issues that “Master of None” covers seem stale to viewers already acquainted with Ansari’s material.
The points that “Master of None” makes are not always as inspiring or innovative as desired, but its superb dialogue undoubtedly washes away concerns and elevates the show above its sitcom peers. Because of the main cast’s history as comedy writers, moments of brilliant improvisation surface throughout the series and are often some of the most memorable scenes from the show. These bits are only augmented by the cast’s stellar acting, which is best seen in the palpable chemistry between Ansari and Wells as their relationship develops.
The most beautiful episode of the series, “Mornings,” follows the progression of Ansari and Wells as a couple, from the intense sparks of sexual and intellectual attraction during the honeymoon phase to the fights over their apartment’s cleanliness during the lulls of their relationship. Well’s performance, as well as the show’s great writing, helps paint her as a wonderfully believable person with her own ambitions and flaws rather than having her fall into the character singularities that often haunt the portrayals of love interests in sitcoms and romantic comedies.
In addition to Ansari’s many semi-autobiographical details in “Master of None,” such as his upbringing in South Carolina and his love of pasta, Shah’s parents are portrayed by Ansari’s real-life parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari. This casting introduces an interesting dynamic: Neither of them are actors, which is blatant in their onscreen interactions. Their bad acting, however, is actually endearing, and it surprisingly enhances the comedic effect of their scenes. Ansari mentioned in an interview with Jimmy Fallon that he had wanted the role of Shah’s parents to be genuine without falling into tried stereotypes. After auditioning other actors, he decided to cast his parents, who, despite their inexperience, produced a flourish of personality unique to “Master of None.”
“Master of None’s” attention to its minutiae — ranging from its wardrobe to its music to the font it uses in the opening credits — is a testament to the significance of the small details in a television program. Ansari rocks pieces from designer brands such as Saint Laurent Paris, Band of Outsiders and Common Projects, inspiring subtle luxe vibes without raising eyebrows as to why Shah can afford those pieces on a commercial actor’s salary. “Master of None’s” soundtrack is also curated beautifully and deliberately, featuring artists such as Father John Misty, Johnny Cash, D’Angelo and Depeche Mode. Each song complements its respective scene and adds to the viewing experience without being distracting or obnoxious.
There are a lot of things to look forward to in “Master of None,” and together, Ansari and Yang have created a piece whose artistry and appeal, ironically, masterfully rise above all expectations. Its status as a freshman series by first-time showrunners seems only to vindicate its position as one of the best television series released in the past few years. The show’s hopeful ending mirrors the optimism held for Ansari’s career: The anticipation of another insightful and important season of “Master of None” is high, but if anyone can deliver, it’s Ansari.
Josh Gu covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].