Review: In the superb Master of None, Aziz Ansari is coming straight for your heart
It feels like almost every network has its own modern New York comedy. Shows like FX's Louie, Comedy Central's Broad City, and HBO's Girls use the city as both catalyst and canvas — a hyperdense, never-sleeping amalgam of numerous disparate cultures that lets these comedies explore the constantly evolving social landscape that is our present day. It's not a new idea — Woody Allen's been doing it since the '70s — but this new class of comedy has become even more vital in today's age of hyperconnectivity.
Aziz Ansari's Master of None, which premieres in its entirety today on Netflix, might be the best New York comedy of them all. It's almost certainly the smartest; what's surprising isn't how funny it is but how often the show is willing to put humor aside to be poignant.
Co-created by Ansari and Parks & Recreation writer Alan Yang (with help from the late Harris Wittels, who wrote for the series and receives an executive producer credit), each episode of Master of None focuses on a specific topic (examples include fidelity, the portrayal of Indians on television, and subtle sexism) while maintaining a narrative throughline tracking Dev (Ansari), a commercial actor with moderate ambitions about making it big.
Like Louie, the show doesn't shy away from experimenting with structure (stylistic nods to '70s-era Woody Allen abound), but Master of None only does so in service of driving home a point. One standout moment in particular is in the excellent episode "Parents": when Dev refuses to fix his dad's iPad so that he can get to the movies early, the episode cuts away mid-conversation to show the full story of the father's struggles to emigrate from India to America. The juxtaposition is hilarious in execution, but it also serves to explain the full weight of the situation. Importantly, the scene doesn't come across as judgmental. Master Of None often shies away from explicitly taking sides, opting instead to present and explore situations with more nuance.
"Nuanced" is also perhaps the best way to describe Dev, who is a stark departure from Ansari's hyperactive hustler Tom Haverford in Parks & Recreation. Dev is the epitome of passivity and indecisiveness. He didn't choose to devote his life to acting; rather, he was found one day while walking through the city, and the money from doing commercials (particularly a Go-Gurt ad from years back) has afforded him the luxury of prolonged adolescence. It's easy to see many elements of Haverford or even Ansari himself in Dev, but Ansari shows impressive range and subtlety in this portrayal. Indeed, the entire cast, whose diversity is as impressive as it is necessary to the stories Master of None wants to tell, is given moments to show both humor and depth. That's especially true of Lena Waithe as Dev's friend Denise, and Ansari's own parents, who play Dev's parents here and steal every scene they're in.
But above all else, Master of None stays grounded in reality — even at the expense of humor. That isn't to say there aren't moments for clever sketch work, but Yang and Ansari focus more on creating absurd but wholly relatable moments, like when Dev can't pick a place to eat tacos without first checking every possible food review site ("There are so many taco places, we gotta make sure we go to the best one").
And therein lies perhaps the biggest theme of the show (of which there are many): with so many options available, be it tacos or people to fall in love with, and no impetus to decide, it's easy to become paralyzed. (Ansari explored many of these ideas in his recent book Modern Romance, which also toes the line between serious and silly.) While that's perhaps more acutely obvious in a city like New York, it's a fair observation for so many people who grew up with a smartphone in their pocket. There also happens to be a paralysis of choice for New York comedies (or Netflix original series). As it turns out, it's fairly easy to pick Master of None.