“Can you guys bond somewhere else? I’m really alone right now.”
Look, there is no shortage of romantic comedies. Sitcoms about dating are eternal institutions that will outlast the cockroaches that remain alive long after we’ve perished in the apocalypse. So while yet another show on the topic might feel like occasion to sigh and roll your eyes, Master of None is the freshest take on the material in a long time, distinctly separating itself from the rest of the pack.
The opening scene of the series, for instance, sees Aziz Ansari’s Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells, in a mesmerizing, magic in a bottle performance) interrupting their steamy intercourse to debate if you can get pregnant over precum. This intimate moment is depersonalized as they retreat to the internet for answers, consulting separate websites to gain solace as the glow of their phones light their faces and the impending Uber is on its way. This pitch-perfect reflection of where romance is currently at feels like an effortless distillation of Ansari’s recent Aziz Ansari: Live in Madison Square Garden stand-up special, and his book, Modern Romance, both of which are drenched in material dealing with contemporary dating, watching your friends get married and grow up, and the technology that inundates our lives. This however feels like the most palatable, polished take on the subject matter, and even if you haven’t been a fan of his material in the past, Master of None is still worth your time.
Much credit should be given to the fact that Ansari works his material into the show much more organically than a lot of other shows of this nature (Mulaney is an example that immediately comes to mind). Instagram, text messaging, Vine, and complicated social cues are deftly navigated through while still feeling totally organic. Each episode is almost like a different stand-up piece or chapter from Ansari’s book, whether the focus is on dating, impressing your parents, or your cultural roots, with the show’s gaze also going much beyond that too, going to some esoteric, lonely places in the process.
The series chisels out an ultra-realistic take regarding relationships. Fodder like taking a trip, moving in together, and the dreaded nature of falling into a routine are explored here better than I’ve ever seen them before, with the results that are sometimes scary for how honest and genuine they are. Seeing someone so carefully pinpoint how a relationship can decay and how the action can be so laissez-faire at times is a frightening thing, but creators Ansari and Alan Yang nail it. At the same time, the show will also steer into dreamy territory and deliver its own version of Before Sunrise in the sweetest, gooiest way. That’s what relationships are, the series is telling us, this complicated mess of extremes.
The subject matter and tone of Master of None are refreshing and reason alone to be excited, but the look of the series is another impressive attribute. The show is really beautifully filmed with subtle handheld touches at times to accentuate moments. Black and white fantasy sequences are indulged in to capitalize on New York’s beauty, and it’s easy to see why Ansari wanted to film here versus LA, which has been his home for a while. It even feels like you’re watching an episode of Louie or an early Woody Allen film, at times.
Beyond the aesthetic gorgeousness of the show, the eclectic cast that’s been assembled here is really something special. Ansari is of course leading the pack, but he’s rounded out with the likes of Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe, Kelvin Yu, and the aforementioned Noël Wells. The affability between everyone in this cast is also extremely believable, with Wareheim’s Arnold as a particularly inspired foil for Dev. There’s a particular opening to an episode that I love to death that evokes a very Tarantino-like feel as Dev and Arnold break down the lyrics to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to the smallest minutiae. The piece is distinctly in Ansari’s voice and the perfect vehicle for him to riff on this sort of thing. This is the banter and the “nothing” that this show gets into. This is their Jerry and George talking about Superman. This is their Vincent and Jules waxing on about fast food and the metric system. Yet it feels incredibly fresh.
At the same time, there are other moments of complete beauty that the show realizes in entirely different ways. For instance, there’s a scene where Dev and Denise perform a citizen’s arrest, and it’s a glowing moment of empowerment that might be my favorite moment from the season. It acts as a great example of the good that this show can do, which sounds like a crazy thing to say, but it’s absolutely true. There’s certainly a social mindedness at play here that is absent in a lot of sitcoms, and a lot of this has to do with the creative force behind the series that Ansari and Alan Yang have put together. There are a lot of familiar names from Yang and Ansari’s former stomping grounds of Parks and Recreation, and it’s deeply bittersweet to see the recently departed Harris Wittels’ name in the credits, too (with his voice still very much feeling apart of the show).
Two of the more powerful examples of the important conversations that Master of None is trying to engage in, come in the forms of the episodes “Indians on TV” and “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The former is a poignant look at the roles that Indians have been marginalized into in the media, pulling from Ansari’s real-life experiences. The episode cleverly subverts itself as it simultaneously deconstructs and attempts to fix this problem, while displaying both sides of the argument fairly.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” might be the most important episode to come out of the first season, as it dissects the struggles that plague women and how a simple night out or posting a picture online can turn into a fraught experience. Most importantly here, the show actually has women writers on hand for this entry (which is significant considering Ansari and Yang write nearly every other episode), as well as the stalwart Lynn Shelton directing. Just like the Indian material is rooted in authenticity, Ansari and Yang make sure that their writers’ room has female voices in it who are contributing to the discussion being had and changing the timbre of the show accordingly.
While on its surface level Master of None might just be a show about romance, as you dig deeper you’ll discover that it’s one of the most honest depictions of people in their late twenties/early thirties who are terrified of their lives going into entropy over the limited decisions that your life ends up funneling towards. Netflix has yet another hit on their hands, and with an extremely strong, confident, hilarious foundation in place, I can’t wait to see how this show builds on itself and how Dev will continue to change.
This review was based on all ten thirty-minute episodes of Master of None’s first season. All ten episodes will be available to stream on Netflix, November 6th.