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November 17, 2015

STANTON | Aziz, Louie and New York City

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In the most recent season of Louis C.K.’s hilariously depressing series Louie, the titular character takes his 16-year-old daughter to a matinee of a “celebrated 1960s play” that stars the dream lineup of Michael Cera, John Lithgow and Matthew Broderick (sadly, this play does not exist and was created for the purpose of the show). During an especially dramatic moment in the performance, Louie looks over at his daughter, Lilly, and notices her messing with her phone. Immediately after the curtain falls, he commences a familiar tirade about her (our) entire generation sacrificing their engagement with the real world in favor of a screen-based lifestyle.

In a moment uncharacteristic of the show, Lilly snaps back, explaining that she had been reading up on the play’s production history in order to better understand what was happening onstage. Louie’s reaction is priceless — equal parts pleased by his daughter’s appreciation of the play and shocked by his own false assumptions about her. It’s a moment that captures a specific generational divide, but also one that would never occur in Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, Master of None. A promising collection of work that might best be understood as a companion piece to Louie, the ten-episode series replaces C.K.’s middle-aged existentialism with youthful indecision.

To clarify, I have never considered myself an Aziz fan. I find his typical roles in film and television — most notably on NBC’s Parks and Recreation — to be hyperactive caricatures that primarily serve to provide over-the-top reactions to what everyone else is doing on-screen. His standup, though, has always been a mature brand of “bachelor” comedy, in which he draws upon his failed dating experiences to incite awkward laughter from audience members who understand his struggles all too well. Following a divorce in 2008, Louis C.K. perfected a more cynical — yet consistently humanist — approach to this form of stand-up. A lifetime comic, the middle-aged C.K. hit a new depth of insight with the debut of FX’s Louie in 2010. Armed with that groundbreaking show as a blueprint and a wealth of unique life experiences to pull from, the 32-year-old Ansari has shifted into a promising new gear. Master of None has yet to reach the artistic peaks of Louie, but as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum put it, it “feels like the future.”

Right from the start, Master of None positions itself within the tradition of “urban singles” comedies, in which groups of friends navigate the perils of uncertain careers and romantic endeavors. In a move borrowed straight from the Louie handbook, the show stars Ansari as a less successful incarnation of himself: a moderately successful actor named Dev whose biggest gig was a Go-Gurt commercial. The narrative of his daily life provides for a simultaneous love letter and middle finger to that great cinematic character of New York City.

Also similar to C.K.’s show, Master of None carries a blend of comedy and drama that lends itself to a meandering narrative and an almost cinematic composition (the framing and editing here are more purposeful than most anything on TV).

To be fair, Louie itself owes a large stylistic debt to classic Woody Allen films like Annie Hall or Manhattan — romantic comedies that feature a Woody surrogate navigating life in New York. While it’s convenient to situate Ansari’s show within the Allen-C.K. tradition, Master of None “feels like the future” because of how it differs from those works. C.K. navigates a world defined by middle-aged exhaustion, and Allen one of younger women and whitewashed intellectualism. Ansari refreshingly abandons their cynicism in favor of curiosity, empathy and optimism. Through Dev, he navigates unaddressed issues like the challenges of romance in a digital age, the racial biases of showbiz and, above all, the privileged struggle of decision-making in the face of infinite options.

Within the confines of a standard TV format, these issues would draw the show thin in its attempts to comment on any and every problem facing privileged young people today. But the whip-smart writing team of Ansari and Parks writer Alan Yang crafts the series so that each episode tackles a specific issue, while the broader season chronicles a love-story arc between Dev and Rachel (the talented Noël Wells). For example, an episode entitled “Ladies and Gentlemen” juxtaposes the harassment that women face on a day-to-day basis in urban spaces with the relatively blissful bubble that men inhabit. Aziz possesses an extraordinary ability to manifest broad ideas like this in daily interactions.

This skillset, along with Ansari’s background, provide for the show’s greatest, but most understated, strength. From episode to episode, Master of None casually and comically examines multiculturalism through its diverse cast while remaining aware of how much identity matters. Through Dev’s ever-present empathy, the show gives voice to perspectives that audiences could never find in Louie or an Allen film. Sadly, that’s a novel concept in an industry largely dominated by white faces and masculine viewpoints.

As a show defined by the fear of decisions leading to dissatisfaction, Master of None ends on a fittingly ambiguous note. A vague sense of romantic optimism pervades the season finale like the denouement to an Allen film, and angsty viewers may crave a more resolute conclusion. While the end product is flawed, Ansari’s infectious positivity and increasingly ambitious scope set high standards for its future.

Chris Stanton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cms459@cornell.edu. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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