There’s no denying that Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix original series, Master of None, has taken the millennial world by storm. Featuring an extremely diverse cast and tackling anything from the quest to find the best taco to institutional racism, the show is being touted as the best comedy of the year. But is it really that incredible? Two writers discuss whether Ansari’s new show is a fresh perspective or just another show about nothing.
ANOTHER MILLENNIAL TROPE
Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show, Master of None, presents another story of New York living—with few off-the-wall twists to keep viewers interested.
In Master of None Ansari plays Dev, an actor working and living in New York City facing many issues that all ‘new adults’ deal with. He goes on dates, auditions, awkwardly gets through one-night stands, and frets about his future, like most young adults do. Many sitcoms, like New Girl and Broad City, for example, are based on the same new-adult-big-world premise, but include an outrageous character or plot hook to grab the audience’s attention.
The show has no such character or scenario. Instead, viewers see a relatively normal, albeit funnier-than-average, man go through his life over the course of a few months. Although the lack of drama is off-putting, there are many moments for small laughs, as there probably would be if you were friends with Aziz Ansari. Unfortunately, the only real draw to the show is that it features Ansari; otherwise it would certainly get lost in the sea of sitcoms about 20-somethings living in New York City, dealing with adulthood in any manner of comedic or dramatic mishaps.
Master of None is a Netflix production, and Ansari’s third project with the company. Considering this, it’s easier to understand the lack of punchy drama. Without the pressure of network executives and publicly-released ratings, shows produced by Netflix can be slower, and more subtle. In this way, Master of None is perfect for Netflix, but perhaps not for broad audiences.
This is just the most recent release in a media trend that’s putting network TV in a panic. The way that people watch TV is completely changing, and with the change in consumption comes an opportunity for change in content. In this case,Master of None takes that opportunity and runs with it. In every episode he showcases different relevant modern issues, such as everyday racism, sexism, and immigration. Netflix has given a great deal of freedom to television writers, producers, and actors, and beyond Master of None it will be exciting to see how far the streaming company goes in pushing the boundaries of typical television.
One virtue of the show is that it puts a different spin on otherwise familiar scenario. There is something to be said for a depiction of life on TV as the slow, at times awkward, sometimes funny little interactions that make up most of life. It’s easy to identify with Dev and his friends, because they don’t have the wild and unrealistic quirks that many sitcom characters do (see: J.D. in Scrubs or Barney in How I Met Your Mother). Unlike these shows Master of None has very minimal dramatization, which at some moments make the show feel boring, and leaves some conversations coming off as extremely self-conscious. The script becomes more noticeable because there’s no wacky comedy to distract from it.
Unlike most of it’s peers, Master of None unabashedly addresses issues of diversity and representation in the media. Then the show goes further by dedicating an entire episode to everyday sexism, and another to the experience of immigrant families in the United States. Another episode specifically explores discrimination against Indian actors in the entertainment industry, including instances of brownface in film that have gone unnoticed for decades. While issues of diversity are addressed explicitly in the show’s plot, Master of None implicitly tackles the problem with an astonishingly diverse cast free of stereotypical tropes.
Master of None works, but not quite. It works as a showcase of Ansari’s versatility in comedy and drama. It works as a discussion of race and representation. Master of None is a mature step in Ansari’s career, and an adventurous combination of his comedic talents and knack for social commentary. As a TV show, Master of None fails to capture the attention of viewers expecting Ansari’s usual upbeat banter.
THE SEINFELD ABOUT SOMETHING
When it comes to TV shows set in New York, the need to have a diverse cast becomes more pressing. It’s always imperative to tell the stories of people of colour, but in a city as diverse as New York, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to write an excellent comedy featuring an entirely white cast. One of the biggest criticisms of HBO’s Girls is it’s lack of racial diversity. No 20-something living in New York has a group of friends composed entirely of white people, unless they live in a very specific square blockage on the Upper East Side (see Gossip Girl). Aziz Ansari’s Master of None accurately captures the experience of not just an Indian man living and working in New York, but of any 20 or 30 something in the modern world.
For too long, TV and movie execs have relied on the excuse that casting people of colour as leading men and women will lead to a certain flop. Recent successful shows like The Mindy Project and Fresh Off the Boat have proved that to be false. When shows take place in a city as diverse as New York, that logic seems even more bizarre.
Like ‘90s TV favourite Seinfeld, Master of None follows the everyday life of an actor/comedian in New York. Aziz Ansari plays a fictionalized version of himself, Dev Shah, and each episode is full of the same kind of situational humour that made Seinfeld famous. For instance, in one episode Dev struggles with the ethics of having a sexual relationship with a married woman (Claire Danes). When her husband rudely cuts in front of him at a trendy ice cream shop—stealing the last artisanal hipster dessert—Dev casts aside his uncertainties and begins having spiteful sex with the woman.
Whereas in the ‘90s Seinfeld could get away with an all white cast in a show that made New York City a character in itself, today that lack of diversity is not only unrepresentative, it’s simply unrealistic. The fourth episode in Masters of None, “Indians on TV,” begins with a trip through every Indian stereotype in the media; from the dinner of monkey brains in Indiana Jones, to Apu from The Simpsons, and up to Ashton Kutcher in brownface in a Popchips commercial. The episode revolves around Dev auditioning for a movie with a friend and fellow Indian actor. When he accidently sees an email from the producer he learns the unspoken truth. There can be one Indian guy, but there can’t be two. As Dev says, “Black people just got to there can be two and even then there can’t be three.” Yet Master of None proves there can be two, three, or four and not feel like an ‘Indian show,’ but a show for everyone in today’s ethnic mosaic cities.
And it’s not just immigration and racial issues that Master of None captures with impeccable humour and accuracy. The social scene of 2015 doesn’t revolve around a group of friends all hanging out at a coffee shop anymore, nor can people expect friends to spontaneously burst into our apartments with urgent news. Instead the social humour of Master of None is best depicted when Dev gathers his friends for a night spent binge-watching Sherlock. To his friends’ dismay, he keeps pausing the show to read a text from a girl out loud.Master of None doesn’t need an outrageous character or plot hook to keep viewers interested. Instead, its plot hook comes in it’s immense courage to tackle a range of social issues most sitcoms would balk at. It’s not just immigration and diversity issues that it examines with a light-hearted wit. A later episode paints a touching picture about how we care for our elderly family members that forces watchers to want to immediately call their grandma.
Master of None shows Ansari’s talent as a writer in it’s creative depiction of modern life. While it does address dating and relationships like most sitcoms, this never feels like a trope, but rather an authentic portrait. Dev’s relationship with Rachel (Noel Wells) isn’t forced simply to add a love interest to the action. Their relationship is well-written and it’s clear to from their goofy personalities why the two would date. Even in the familiar sitcom territory of relationships, Master of Noneshows off its strong writing.
Master of None is the comedy show society needs in 2015. It’s not afraid to bring diversity issues to the forefront with clever observational humour. At the same time, its diversity never feels forced, but natural. It’s not trying to be diverse—it’s simply mirroring the real people and their real lives in 2015. With wit and creativity its comments on modern life and relationships make it one of the year’s best comedies.
– Anna St. Clair