Netflix is fast making a name for itself as a home for inventive, thoughtful comedy. BoJack Horseman is an emotional reflection on stardom and ageing, told through the lens of an animal-stuffed animated series. Love reinvented the rom-com, showing us how ‘happily ever after’ is just a cliché. And today we’re going to talk about Master Of None, Aziz Ansari’s New York-set series, which may be the streaming service’s most impressive LOL-inducing output to date.
When Ansari burst onto the sitcom scene as opportunistic entrepreneur/local government employee Tom Haverford, in Parks & Recreation, few would’ve guessed that he’d be writing, directing and starring in such a heart-wrenching series a few years later. But here we are.
Developing ideas that he’s previously discussed in his stand-up and in his book Modern Romance: An Investigation, here Ansari puts romantic entanglements, racism in showbusiness, and the perils of growing older into his crosshairs. The result is a show that has big laughs and heart-breaking moments in abundance…
The set-up of the show seems simple at first. As the title suggests, we’re going to see Dev (the main character, played by Ansari) trying out a number of different things, and failing to master any of them. The first episode opens with a one-night stand going awry, before transitioning into a sweet story about Dev babysitting his friends’ kids.
Your eyebrows will rise at the unparalleled awkwardness of Dev and his bedfellow stopping mid-shag to do some quick Googling, and your sides will split later on as the aforementioned kids run rampant on Dev’s watch. There’s an incident involving waffles and genitals in a supermarket, at one point. At another, Dev ums and ahs about the correct process for taking someone else’s daughter to the bathroom. It’s funny stuff, and very relatable.
But a set-up like that could only take you so far. Eventually, a wall would be hit, and the well of awkward situations to thrust Dev into would begin to run dry. Plus, viewers need a reason to keep coming back.
Getting your audience engaged – one way or another – is the key to crafting a winning Netflix series. To this end, other shows have deployed end-of-episode cliffhangers, ongoing mysteries, and/or the promise of a big crossover a little ways down the road. Here, along with co-creator and recurrent writer Alan Yang, Ansari opts to inspire emotional investment to snare your ongoing interest.
Two seasons of the show have aired to date, and having devoured both of them as quickly as possible, I’m now emotionally engaged in every area of Dev’s life. When work dramas strike, I’m sighing along with him. When matters of the heart go badly and Dev takes a lonely cab ride home, I want to jump into my telly and give him a pep talk and a manly hug. And now that season 2 is over, I just want to know if he’s alright.
If the show were simply Ansari charging into a new zany concept every episode, the shtick would soon get old. After a certain amount of episodes, it could start to feel more like a series of YouTube sketches than a binge-worthy series with a heart and a soul. Dev needs to feel like a real character in a believable world in order to hook you in.
Master Of None achieves this on a number of levels, one of which is its thoughtful deployment of supporting characters. Dev’s friends and family aren’t just background dressing. They have their own problems, histories, love lives and foibles. And while Dev is very much the protagonist, we get to glimpse an awful lot of other stories. This deepens the package, and develops the show from ‘Ansari vs. first world problems’ into a well-rounded journey.
This stall is set out in the very first episode. Dev picks up his friends’ kids from a party, where their dad Kyle (played by David Ebert) is talking a big talk about how enriching and fulfilling he’s finding parenthood to be. But when Dev drops the children home later on, he hears the real story: being a dad is eating up David’s life. He’s miserable. His marriage is breaking down.
Episode 2 then introduces Dev’s parents – who are played by Aziz Ansari’s actual father and mother, Shoukath and Fatima – to wonderful effect. In the modern day, Dev refuses to fix his dad’s iPad because he doesn’t want to miss the trailers at the cinema. Then, in flashbacks, we see the journey Dev’s dad went through – from the streets of India to a doctorate in America – in order for Dev to enjoy this level of laziness and luxury.
It’s a really refreshing slice of storytelling, this. Dev isn’t the only character with a fleshed out backstory and a wide range of emotions. Even the guest stars get that level of development.
Dev’s daily life – trying to make it as an actor in New York, spending time with his parents, chatting with his friends, and so forth – provides a lot of the laughs, but the real heartbeat of the show is Dev’s love life. You can tell that modern dating and relationships fascinate Ansari, and he’s converted his opinions and worries into some stellar stories here.
Season 1 opens with a one-night stand going badly, and it ends with a long-term relationship going very badly. In between those two extremes, Ansari and Yang explore a lot of interesting stuff. In episode 3, we see Dev trying to find a date for a concert, which blows up in his face spectacularly. In episode 5, Claire Danes plays a married restaurant critic who wants to have an affair with Dev. (Again, as you might’ve guessed, that doesn’t end well for our hero.)
Eventually, Dev bumps into Rachel (played by Nöel Wells), a woman from his past, and realises there could be something there. In a more realistic chain of events than most TV romances, it takes a while for them to actually get together. And when they do, Dev frets about making their first proper date a memorable one. He decides on a big gesture, which goes well… up to a point.
It feels realistic, and not just because of the top-notch writing. There’s also some genuine chemistry between Dev and Rachel, and it’s charming to watch them laugh and joke together while traversing the strange, awkward world of 21st century courtship.
Things get even more realistic when they move in together, which proves to be a real challenge. The penultimate episode of season 1 is a montage of mornings, spliced together to convey a period of months. What starts as easy chemistry and effortless happiness devolves into bickering over tiny things. The belly laughs give way to gut punches, as things begin to unravel (in a way that’s sure to feel close to home for many viewers).
It doesn’t feel like too much of a spoiler to say that season 2 opens with Dev in Italy. During a season 1 side story, he developed a passion for cooking pasta, and in the gap between seasons he followed that passion to the source. We pick up with Dev in a new city, with a new set of supporting players, for a very brave episode. It’s in black and white, and much of it subtitled. And all of it is brilliant.
We see the lingering embers of Dev and Rachel’s definitely finished relationship, in the form of some texts and emails. Dev briefly enjoys being back in contact with her, before realising that it isn’t helping either of them move on. Dev’s best bud Arnold (a standout performance from Eric Wareheim) comes to visit, and reveals his own feelings for his soon-to-be-married ex. Again, in amongst the laughs, there’s a mature discussion at play.
Dev dives headfirst into online dating in season 2 episode 4, which cuts together numerous Tinder-inspired first dates into a montage of uninspiring encounters and expensive evenings. As with the ‘mornings’ episode of season 1, this one uses canny editing and superb scripting to convey a huge swathe of story in a punchy thirty minutes.
Eventually, Dev realises how strong his feelings are for Francesca, an Italian pasta enthusiast he met on his travels. Alessandra Mastronardi sizzles in this role, offering a multifaceted performance that zigzags from sultry to silly to seriously conflicted. Francesca has a wonderful chemistry with Dev, and the pair have a lot in common. As Dev’s career hits new peaks and new troughs, it’s the rare chances to see Francesca that make him most happy.
But there’s a catch: Francesca is engaged to be married, and she only visits New York on rare occasions. Again, we see Dev grappling with a tough situation, with Ansari showing an impressive emotional range to match each new hurdle. He’s got a lot more in his locker than smirking at the camera, it turns out.
With all Dev’s romantic struggles and work issues, it would be easy for this show to veer into melodrama and forget about the laughs. But, thankfully, it never does. There’s a sense of gleeful fun that runs through the show, permeating both the characters and the scripts.
It helps that Dev’s friendships always seem genuine. His bromantic partnership with Arnold comes complete with running in-jokes and little songs, and is a joy to behold. The aforementioned episode, in Italy, where they both discuss their exes, feels like two chums genuinely opening up about the contents of their hearts.
There’s also Denise (Lena Waithe) and Brian (Kelvin Yu). They’re all part of one big friendship group. The show takes the time to establish that (they have a great Sherlock viewing party at one point), but it also goes to the effort of breaking ranks to give each chum their moment in the spotlight.
We see how Denise’s family reacted to her sexual preferences over a series of Thanksgiving dinners. We see how Brian and his dad have drifted apart, much like Dev and his parents. We see Arnold – the biggest, most bombastic personality in the supporting cast – suffer the loss of his grandfather. This show covers a broad range of topics and emotions, and is all the more watchable for it.
Master Of None also throws you a curveball from time to time. There’s an episode that branches away from the main cast to see how the taxi drivers and shop clerks of New York live. In another episode, there’s a scene where Dev helps Rachel’s gran escape from her hospice.
This is a show that never sits still, managing to amply serve multiple big ideas in each and every episode. All the while, it remains hilarious, which makes you care even more about the characters at its heart. The heartache and the hilarity both come thick and fast. This is a a show that will make you laugh, cry and think a bit.
Don’t let the title fool you; this is masterful stuff.