Once known primarily for his role as the luxury-loving Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari has spent the larger part of 2015 positioning himself as an astute observer of our culture. His book Modern Romance was a bestseller, and now he’s at the helm of one of the breakout shows of the year. In Master of None, on Netflix, Ansari balances wit and wisdom as he approaches pressing issues with a relatable sense of confusion.
In addition to creating and writing the show, Ansari stars as Dev, an Indian-American actor and son of immigrants. Dev is doing alright for himself, working steadily and enjoying his youth with a tight knit quartet of friends. But when he’s up for a big movie role in a “black virus movie” and he meets a woman he really likes, he’s confronted with some of the largest questions facing society.
The show has been receiving rave reviews, and is already finding its way onto “Best of” lists for the end of the year. And it’s no wonder, given the heart and humor that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have brought together. Small details, like casting Ansari’s parents in a delightful series of appearances or shooting the show in favorite NYC haunts, go a long way to making the show feel intimate even as it grapples with significant issues.
If it sounds heavy handed, fear not. Each episode is focused tightly on one overarching theme, including racism in the entertainment industry, how to properly thank parents who gave their kids everything, and the differences between how men and women perceive sexism. Under that broad umbrella, Dev confronts smaller, more immediate dilemmas.
But for all that, the show remains light. Dev doesn’t have the answers, neither do his friends nor Busta Rhymes. Everyone is doing their best, and more than once Dev finds himself having to apologize to his girlfriend, to strangers, or to friends. In a rapidly changing society, it’s easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the latest debate not by any malicious intent, but by a slight overlooking of the details. In Master of None, legitimately good people are given the room to muddle through culture at large, and the result is a delightfully relatable and human show.
In addition to the larger questions, a subplot about Dev’s developing relationship with Rachel (Noel Wells), a woman introduced in the opening scene during a Plan B and Martinelli’s Apple Juice run. They circle each other for a few episodes before heading on a first date to Nashville, then eventually move in together. The show treats the relationship much the way it treats large societal questions: unflinchingly, with no easy answers.
While Dev and Rachel are both funny, interesting people, the show doesn’t force them to be perfect. On their first date, the camera stays tight while they muddle through awkward silences and uncomfortable surprises. But much like in life, the moments pass and they are back to making each other laugh. Without ever making explicit statements about those random early relationship moments, the show captures them perfectly.
In a later episode, a one year jump is handled smoothly by showing the couple at various mornings throughout their first year living together. The effect is powerful, showing them in the early and thrilling days of their time together and in the later days when the newness has worn off and the business of living as a team becomes more strained. They both mess up, say the wrong thing, apologize, and make up. It’s one of the most striking and real portraits of two people attempting to bring their lives together in recent memory, and one that’s haunting in both its ups and downs.
Although it doesn’t have the answers, or suggest that it does, the show opens up a space where we can all candidly look at the world and ourselves. Ansari has made a TV show that balances deep reflection and easy laughs, and is just the kind of pop culture we desperately need.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing
Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Netflix