By Brenden Gallagher
Last weekend, the Internet put aside its differences and came together to declare that Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None is good. This is important because the only other things that the Internet has agreed on in the last month are that Justin Bieber’s ““Sorry” video is dope and that Trump hosting SNL is bad. I’ll add to the chorus: this is one of the best comedies of the year. It is worth your time. You should be binge watching it at your earliest convenience.
What makes Master of None so charming is that sometimes it sticks the landing, and sometimes it falls a little short of the mark and grins back at you from the dirt. As you follow Dev (Ansari), an emerging New York actor, through his life’s ups and downs trying to find love, happiness, and dope sandwiches in the big city, you discover what our hero discovers many times through the course of the season: just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you should throw it away.
A Tale of Two Shows
Master of None is really two shows in one: episodes 1, 3, 6, 9, and 10 are a romcom starring Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells), two hip New Yorkers whose one night stand blossoms into something more. Episodes 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8 are a man against the world show starring Ansari in the mode of Louis C.K., Larry David, or Jerry Seinfeld: a thoughtful funnyman trying to make sense of the culture around him. Master of None works much better as a comedy of Internet era manners than as a romcom.
Episodes 2, 4, and 7 are by far the strongest. In each of them, Dev takes on a social issue, practically finding himself living a Slate or Salon thinkpiece. “Parents” follows Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) as they attempt to connect with their first generation Asian immigrant fathers. The dads (played by Ansari’s own father and veteran character actor Clem Chung) steal the show as they open up to their sons about the differences between their lives of labor and their sons’ lives of privilege. Dev’s dad sums it when he says, “You realize fun is a new thing, right? Fun is a luxury only your generation really has!”
Two episodes later, Dev takes on Hollywood racism in “Indians on TV,” which will likely be the most talked about episode on the blog circuit. Here we see Dev try to balance potential career opportunities with the need to maintain his integrity. As one character puts it, “I don’t think you should play the race card. Charge it to the race card.” “Ladies and Gentleman” follows Dev as he tries to walk a mile in womens’ shoes and realizes those shoes often cross paths with creeps who follow you home from the bar and chronic subway masturbators. Dev learns the lesson that many men (myself included) learn over and over again: just because you understand a little bit of the bullshit women have to deal with doesn’t mean you know anything near the whole story.
The season long arc that tracks Dev and Rachel’s relationship isn’t nearly as exciting as these one-off big picture episodes. 2, 6, and 9 are easily the weakest moments of the season, waffling in focus and struggling to present fully realized female characters. In “Hot Ticket,” Dev invites an attractive waitress (Nina Arianda) out to a concert, and lo and behold, she isn’t all he imagined she would be. “Nashville” is a breezy, superficial look at a first date in Tennessee. In “Mornings,” we see Dev and Rachel’s relationship regress from sexy and new to worn and tired. It’s like Annie Hall with way lower stakes and way more pasta making.
Don’t skip these slower episodes though. The weaker installments have some of the best moments and most clever jokes. One of the best exchanges in the entire season comes when Dev and his co-star (H. John Benjamin) try to interpret a text message from the dream waitress.
“’XOXO.’ That’s good. It means ’Hugs and kisses.'”
“’XOXO’ means ’Go fuck yourself.’”
“In that’s true, then all of the letters my grandmother wrote me ended with, ‘Go fuck yourself, Grandma.'”
Diamonds in the Rough
To harp any more on the periodic weak episode and the joke misfire would be missing the point. While shows like Fargo or Game of Thrones reach greatness when every second is carefully written, revised, and polished to perfection, the strange beats, odd tangents, and bumps in the road are all part of what makes Master of None special. This show isn’t afraid to take long digressions to speculate on the relationship between the 8 Mile and reality or tell you where to get good Italian food in Manhattan. More often than not, the tangents pay off and the show hits the mark. Whether it’s the subtly played despair of a soon to be divorced dad (David Charles Ebert), the aggressive confidence of Claire Danes as a one-night stand with a secret, or the out of nowhere cameo by Busta Rhymes, great moments often come out of left field and far outweigh the missteps.
Master of None is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Louie, FX’s avant-garde critical darling, which really isn’t fair. Louis C.K. has another twenty years of directing, writing, and producing on Ansari, and he executes every episode of his show with the polish of a Sundance short film. Master of None is more like a high-end web series. The acting is stagy and wooden at moments. The shooting often feels workmanlike and uninspired. Some bits that would have been cut by a discerning executive are left in for the laughs even if they don’t move story along. But, there is a vibrant excitement that comes when young artists like Ansari and Yang getting the keys to the car, and pushing it to its limit. Master of None attempts to weigh in on race relations in America, the alienation of the Internet age, why you have to see Father John Misty live, and where to get the best tacos in New York with equal intense energy. Usually it succeeds.
If you’re looking for polished perfection, you can go elsewhere. But, even when it gets bumpy, the team behind Master of None makes sure that you enjoy the ride.