November 17, 2015

Master of None: On Aziz Ansari’s Smart New Sitcom

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In Master of None, viewers meet a more thoughtful and mature Aziz Ansari. Ansari’s hyperactive rants about bed sheet thread counts and Kanye West are mostly absent, replaced by honest depictions of relationships, family and workplace strife. In the ten-episode Netflix original series (which Ansari co-created with Parks and Rec producer Alvin Yang), Ansari plays Dev Shah, an artistically struggling but financially stable actor in New York City. Dev and his cohort deal with the hyper modern — prowling review sites to find the best tacos, to the everyday — moving in with a significant other. Most often, however, Ansari and Leung’s storylines find a narrative sweet spot that is silly and poignant, such as when Dev seeks out the most polite, but strategic, way to offer a Father John Misty ticket to potential dates over text. Maybe the best review is a visceral one: Master of None is a hilarious sitcom that made me cry. A few times.

The weeping came from Master of None’s second episode, “Parents” — an early storytelling climax. Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) realize that they have grown distant from their immigrant parents. The emotional core of the episode occurs before most of the action unfolds. When Dev and Brian refuse to do simple favors for their fathers, Ansari — also the episode’s director — flashes back through their fathers’ stories. The audience sees Dev’s young, recent immigrant parents (Rohan Kymal and Shunori Ramanathan) eating alone in the hospital cafeteria after being rudely snubbed by an older doctor. In an equally powerful scene, we see Brian’s father, Peter, as a child (Mason Yam) forced to kill his pet chicken for his family to eat. The flashback subtly pans back to adult Peter (Clem Cheung) kindly excusing his son. Yet, Ansari and Yeung dabble in sentimentality without getting mired in it. Dev later buys his father Ramesh (played by Ansari’s actual father Shoukath Ansari) a guitar to fulfill his childhood wish, only to find that he prefers to play iPad games instead of practicing.

Throughout the series, the writers and cast excel when they forego quick punch lines for poignant messages. Master of None’s fourth episode, “Indians on TV,” opens on young Dev watching a supercut of Indian caricatures in television and video games. Throughout the episode, instances of racism tally up: casting agents insist that Dev “do” a fake accent, a channel executive sends an email wondering which Indian actor will “curry their favor.” Ansari’s ultimate writing strength, however, is his refusal to write jokes at his and other Indians’ expense. “Why can’t there be a Pardeep who does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies?” Dev laments. There’s a vague sense of humor to the delivery, but it is an honest sentiment. The episode is just as hilarious as any other in the series, but racism is always met first-and-foremost with indignation.

Yet, Ansari also retains humility in Dev’s character. Dev is kind and friendly, but not infallible. For example, Dev tries to mansplain away his director’s sexism in the show’s seventh episode, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The episode, which was directed by Lynn Shelton, depicts the sexism in New York’s sound stages and bars. In one harrowing scene, Dev’s co-worker Diana (Condola Rashad) is stalked home from a bar by a creep who whines, “Give a nice guy a shot!” while pounding on her apartment door. Dev increasingly sees the sexism that faces his friends and co-workers throughout the episodes, but he falters in the final scene. When Dev’s director Brad (Ian Kahn) neglects to shake any of Dev’s female friends’ hands, Dev’s girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells) and friend Denise (Lena Waithe) scoff at his sexism. Dev brushes off an upset Rachel, arguing, “Maybe he wasn’t motivated by a crazy sexist agenda when he didn’t introduce himself to you guys.” Rachel, however, strongly refutes Dev: “When somebody, especially my boyfriend, tells me I’m wrong without any way of knowing my personal experience it’s insulting.” Ansari again foregoes a last laugh for a serious, important takeaway to close the episode.

Master of None’s notable weak point is (certain members of) its supporting cast. Although Denise is a down-to-earth foil who brings out Dev’s humor and intelligence, as well as a witty and sentimental character on her own, Dev’s other buddies fall short of the mark. Arnold (Eric Wareheim, who also directs a few episodes) presents as little more than a slang-slinging millennial cliché. Dev and Arnold’s conversation about hand-dryers and 8 Mile that opens the sixth episode comprises the singularly worst minute of the series. Just when Arnold reaches peak immaturity, he drops an even more annoying line: “You’ve gotta be creative nowadays. For example, I really like this girl, so I sent her an e-vite to my heart.” Whereas Wareheim delivers terrible lines humorously, Brian (Yu) struggles with the opposite problem. Brian is an excellent character — charming, confident, a little goofy  — but Yu apparently cannot deliver a single line without an awkward half-smile. The larger problem with the supporting cast, however, is that they derail the show’s atmosphere. When Arnold responds to Dev’s anxieties with bizarre, cutesy suggestions, it’s unclear if he is supposed to be a realistic friend, or a jab at the way the Internet imagines millennial culture.

Overall, Master of None is a huge step forward, both for Aziz Ansari and for sitcoms in general. Ansari (rightly) feels no need to be subtle in his quest to not make a “minority sitcom,” but rather a sitcom that features underrepresented actors and actresses in compelling, emotional, realistic roles. Ansari discussed his struggles with typecasting and the underrepresentation of minority characters in a Nov. 10 New York Times piece. Many news outlets have picked up “But a straight white guy is not every man. The ‘everyman’ is everybody” as the article’s kicker, but an equally impactful thought comes a paragraph later. Ansari recounts that Alan Yang, the show’s co-creator “asked [him]: ‘How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?’” In Master of None, a diverse cast kisses, eats, jokes and complains together, and it all feels incredibly real.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].