Just when I think I’ve caught up on Netflix shows, Jessica Jones and Making a Murderer are released. I’ve given up. (I still have so much of The West Wing to watch, dammit!)
I want to make a very specific comparison here. Aziz Ansari is doing something really awesome these days, which is: using his brain. A lot. He’s thinking through his career very carefully, and he’s making all the right moves. But he’s also doing something else really awesome, which is: using his heart. He’s clearly producing work that he deeply cares about, and that mirrors his personal experiences. He’s allowing himself to live a little (as he said on WTF a few weeks ago) in order to have actual experiences to draw from. (Fancy that!)
Master of None is the perfect complement to Modern Romance, in that it covers some of the same topics — texting, online dating, his parents’ arranged marriage, differences between the races — but it doesn’t cover them in the same way. The show also complements his most recent standup special, “Live at Madison Square Garden,” yet again, doesn’t beat the topics to a boring pulp. I write that last sentence with a tinge of bitterness because three comedians I absolutely love — Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, and John Mulaney — were unable to do just that across mediums.
Granted, this is not an issue for most people. I’m what is commonly referred to as a “comedy nerd,” which means that I consume as much of a comedian’s output as I can — their sitcoms, standup specials, documentaries, podcast appearances, what have you. Thus, I’m exposed everything and bound to hear repeats. It happens. Of course Aziz Ansari repeated himself over the course of those three works. But he did it in such a way that I barely noticed. In fact, I was intrigued. The other three comedians — while brilliant — just saturated their audience with nearly identical, slightly repackaged material. It’s likely that, like I said, this wasn’t an issue for most people. Not everyone saw Birbiglia’s movie, then watched his special, then read his book, then listened to him on “This American Life.” (In fact, I didn’t do two of those things!) But I still felt so incredibly bored by his “Sleepwalk With Me” canon that I actually cringe whenever I hear it come up in conversation or on other podcasts or whatever. The story is too familiar, and I know the punchlines. The variation between the media it appeared in wasn’t actually varied enough, perhaps because it wasn’t the type of thing that should have appeared in multiple media. Same goes for Mulaney — his standup special(s) are absolutely brilliant, but then he lifted pieces of them and inserted them verbatim into his absolutely terrible TV show. I had to explain to so many people that no, John Mulaney is brilliant and, yes, please ignore his show. Tig… I hesitate to criticize, because I’m so slaphappy about her success, but again, the Live album was incredible. And I watched the Tig documentary and I loved it, and now there’s going to be a show… it’s too much.
Wait, isn’t this review about Master of None? Sorry. Here I go. I fucking loved it. It got built up, like most things, because this is 2015 and I’ll never not write a review of anything without writing that sentence, but I’ll still be pleasantly surprised when I’m not disappointed. The first couple of episodes were unsteady, because a friend of mine pointed out something very accurate that bugged me instantly — that Arnold (Eric Wareheim) spoke too much like Aziz and not like his own character, whoever he was supposed to be. And I thought Aziz’s parents were adorable, but also very plainly not actors. (And Aziz’s dad suffered from the same Aziz-speak problem.) But after the unsteadiness, the steadiness came. And then the steadiness turned into awesomeness! Aziz is a very distinct-looking person, and it’s hard not to see Aziz when you’re watching him act. (Case in point, Tom Haverford.) But Master of None proved that hell yeah, Aziz can act. Aziz was completely and totally Dev here, telling his incredibly relatable story in all its unflattering, intimate, real glory.
On that same WTF episode, Aziz also talks about how important it was to have a friend group that represented his actual friend group. And his friends here feel like real, true friends, probably because they are. Even though Arnold’s vocabulary was off, he was definitely Dev’s friend. As was Brian (Kelvin Yu), as was Denise (Lena Waithe), as was Ravi (Ravi Patel). Despite being an incredibly white person myself, my friend group looks a lot like Aziz’s, and I hadn’t really thought about that until I saw it actually represented on television correctly. I never thought my friend group was out of the ordinary, because it isn’t. But diversity stands out when it’s not stunt casting. No one is token here. Everyone just is. That’s how it always should have been.
My favorite episode was probably “Indians on TV,” because it delves into something I’m so unfamiliar with — the acting world, the auditioning world, and the being-an-Indian-guy-in-both-of-those world. It’s fascinating. And, despite the hilarity of it all — Dev’s beefy friend Anush (Gerrard Lobo) killed me — it’s pretty painful to watch, too. If you’re a white guy, you go into a room and see a bunch of guys who look like you going out for the same lead role. If you’re an Indian guy, a bunch of guys who look like you are going out for the role of the convenience store clerk. Demeaning doesn’t even begin to describe it. Aziz does a masterful job.
God, I loved Noel Wells, too. We barely got to know her on SNL, which is a shame, but maybe better in the long run, like how it was with Jenny Slate and Casey Wilson and Sarah Silverman. It seems to me like Wells is destined for this sort of nuance and depth, and it’s evidenced here by her magnetism and sweet chemistry with Aziz. Even if these two don’t work out — which is left hanging in the balancey in the still-satisfying season finale — the way they play against each other suggests that they still value the experience. Diplomacy can be romantic, guys!
And an aesthetic point! The music hit home for me, as I imagine it did for many. Father John Misty and Lou Reed rang particularly true for me; it adds a layer of comfort to your virtual life when you watch something that’s supposed to represent your age group and the characters actually have the same musical taste as you do. (The same cannot be said for “Girls,” for example.) And the font that was chosen for the title cards — someone artsy tell me what that is. Please. I like fonts.
More, please, Aziz! But live your life first.