Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: Master of None has no right to be this good.
Aziz Ansari’s new original series for Netflix is such a huge departure for the writer/performer and for the format itself, and this will be the show we point to over the next five years as the project that changed our expectations for all streaming entertainment.
And no one saw this coming.
From the trailers, Master looked like exactly what you’d expect from Aziz: a show about the wacky elements of modern dating from a very particular comedy voice that wants to be wacky and too cool at the same time. Coming off a new standup special and a book literally titled Modern Romance, it seemed like we were in for ten episodes of watching a hip New York dude stumble his way through a series of uncomfortable sexual encounters in dimly lit cool-kid bars. And the show does cold open in this world with a sequence of pregnancy prevention, Ubers, and casual hook-ups — classic Aziz. And then the credits hit and we never look back on this predictable, safe territory.
Master owes its audience nothing. It has no desire to provide a safe rhythm, structure, or even character arcs. Like Louie before it, each installment can focus on a theme from childhood to racism to sexism to the city of Nashville, without breaking its scope. It’s complicated and loves to reach further than a twenty-five minute episodic should stretch — at least under a less talented team.
Co-creator Alan Yang, along with Joe Mande and Harris Wittels (RIP), really use their years of working on Parks and Rec together to produce the strongest comedy series out-of-the-gate I’ve ever seen. Directing from mumblecore hero Lynn Shelton and anti-comedy god Eric Wareheim add to a creative team so stacked it’s a small wonder this project could bring them all together.
Master of None follows Dev Shah, a commercial actor in his early 30s, as he attempts to develop as a person and a performer in the competitive world of hipster New York City. He maintains a hilariously diverse friend-entourage, including a tall white doofus, a cool black lesbian, and a Taiwanese buddy who all patiently take orders from Dev because… alpha male things? Anyway, this group watches as Dev struggles with adapting or learning from the life experience of others, and while he makes some obvious dude missteps, he’s always endeavouring to become better, and that drive to improve makes Dev more endearing than any of the over-the-top rom-comish moments where Aziz’s humanity takes a back seat to looking good.
The first episode sets expectations in a safe middle space. Dev is suddenly curious as to whether children make life better or worse, and winds up taking care of a friend’s kids for the afternoon, which leads to both positive and negative perspectives on this lifestyle change, skewing a little towards what you’d expect from a cool, single 30-year-old’s world view. There are small breaks with reality and flourishes of French New Wave filmmaking; the show isn’t afraid to leave jokes behind for a few minutes to live in a moment. Then episode two opens by detonating all expectations — by spending seven minutes recapping multigenerational histories of immigrant families developing a disconnect with their children that is made immeasurably worse by the social integration of technology. What? Where did that come from and why do I feel so terrible now? I’m calling my dad and I can’t stop dialing. This…this wasn’t supposed to happen.
While comparisons to Louie remain unavoidable, there’s an important difference. While so much of C.K.’s production comes from exploring the big meaning in small choices, Master explores gigantic issues by making them small, personal exchanges. In the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Dev learns about the difference between men and women’s treatment in bar culture and single-handedly decides to spearhead feminism, even though it winds up working against him. It’s one of my favorite episodes of TV ever produced, because it takes on the reality of male feminism, white knighting, and even sexual perversion with a nuance that, again, I cannot believe Aziz Ansari was capable of conveying. But here we are. And the episode highlights what makes this the kind of show that could only work with Aziz— it means so much more to see a cartoonish exaggeration of male ego slowly learn how to trust the perspectives of others.
Master of None is a must watch. Even if every joke doesn’t land, the performances and scale of what it is attempting/doing requires your attention. It’s the new high watermark for original non-television programming, and everything else in production at Hulu/Netflix should be aware that the bar has just raised.