TV Review – Master of None
Aziz Ansari plays a version of himself, an aspiring actor named Dev Shaw who is the first generation son of immigrant parents from India. Immediately, he lays out the bones pretty clearly of his protagonist. He’s getting to be a certain age where the pressure to have things like marriage and children is increasing more and more, and he has this fantasy in pristine black-and-white that he might want, but the ultimate reality of it, the messy colors that he experiences push him maybe not to want it.
Dev doesn’t seem to know he’s not that great an actor, and no one directly calls him on it. I couldn’t tell if that was the joke or not. One immediate visual gag is that Dev’s best friend is a tall man named Arnold, played by Eric Wareheim, and every time they’re in a scene together, the camera shot can’t be too tight or else Ansari becomes nothing more than a floating head. The first episode has this problem. Later episodes solve it with making the camera shot wider when looking at the two of them at once.
Episode 2, “Parents,” and Episode 8, “Old People,” do something that most TV shows don’t do or rarely do, and that is give life, breath and depth to characters over the age of 60 and even 70. He doesn’t just make them the butt of jokes. He empathizes with older characters. He respects them in a way that’s refreshing and often absent in the American landscape. He gives them their due, often just by listening to them, a basic courtesy.
Yet, everyone has been commenting on Episode 4, “Indians on TV,” because in that episode Ansari addresses the issue of the lack of Indian representation on television or the offensive representation on television and in films. He’s on point about the stereotypes and whitewash casting, but a large focus of the episode is the issue that there can’t be more than one Indian actor on a TV show at once. Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix pointed out that NBC defied that issue with its series Outsourced in 2010, but it’s still important to show the under-representation.
It’s also important that Ansari combat that under-representation, which he does in Episode 4. Ravi Patel is an actor of Indian descent who is currently on the FOX series Grandfathered. In Episode 4, Patel plays a more literal version of himself and Ansari makes great use of him in the episode. He also makes semi-good use of Gerrard Lobo, another actor of Indian descent, but the problem is that he never makes good use of them after this episode. Ansari uses the episode to make this one point but then undermines the point by never using Patel again. Lobo pops up once more but he’s not given dialogue or any kind of arc, so what was really the point?
He thumbs his nose at the situation but ends up only throwing stones in his own glass house. He shines a light only to plunge himself back into darkness. He does have a diverse cast otherwise. Kelvin Yu is an actor of Taiwanese descent who plays Brian, the best friend of Dev. Lena Waithe is a black actress who plays Denise, the lesbian friend of Dev. They both get great moments both comedically and character-wise, but again, as Sepinwall noted, it doesn’t make this series any more special than the diverse casts of Parks and Recreation, for which Ansari is best known, or Community, the series that moved from NBC to Yahoo! Screen.
Again, most of the episodes are expansions of topics that Ansari brought up in his standup special. The rest is a story co-written by Alan Yang that follows Dev as he navigates a relationship with a music publicist named Rachel, played by Noël Wells (Saturday Night Live). That relationship doesn’t really kick off until Episode 6, “Nashville,” in which Dev and Rachel go to the city in Tennessee.
That particular episode was directed by Ansari himself, and Ansari really shows his hand in a long, continuous take of him and Wells walking and talking. It was highly reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Some have also compared it to early Woody Allen, and those comparisons are apt. Unfortunately, the writing here isn’t as interesting or as compelling as Linklater or Allen. It’s not even as compelling as something like HBO’s Looking, which shares a lot in common here in terms of what happens in the relationship between Dev and Rachel.
First off, the long, continuous takes are becoming more and more of a thing that directors are using. Films like Victoria and Birdman use it as an immersion technique and to increase verisimilitude. Shows like True Detective and Marvel’s Daredevil use it to heighten action. Here, Ansari doesn’t use it to great effect, or at least to no better effect than Chris Rock did in his recent Top Five (2014).
Many probably will gravitate toward Episode 9, “Mornings,” which is the culmination of the relationship between Dev and Rachel. It does something, which other critics have said is rather non-existent when it comes to TV series, and that’s Episode 9 depicts nearly a year of time and actually progresses time in the series by a year. Recently, Parks and Recreation and even several years ago Desperate Housewives made time jumps but always between seasons never during. This was kind of a first in that it didn’t just jump. Ansari steadily took us through a year’s worth of time.
I will admit that it’s a bold move, but a lot of the character beats and overall arcs were very similar to what I saw recently in HBO’s Looking where those beats and arcs were better done. No, Looking didn’t have the gimmick of only showing us the mornings between the main couple over the course of a year. It simply had the power of Andrew Haigh’s writing and the power of Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey’s acting. No offense to Ansari and Wells’ acting but they’re not as good.
I also wasn’t that impressed with the ending. It actually reminded me of a web series called Hustling starring Sebastian La Cause in which the main character breaks away to become a cook. It’s a weird and unlikely comparison but it rubbed me the wrong way, both in that web series and in this one.
Two Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 30 mins. / 10 eps.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.