Fans who dip into Aziz Ansari’s disarmingly delightful new Netflix comedy, Master of None, might be fooled by the show’s tepid pilot episode. Ansari plays the role of Dev, a 30-something single New York actor dealing with the complexities that come with trying to grow up; in the pilot, his problems seem standard comedy fare, like awkward sex, pregnancy fears, and the requisite men debating whether perpetual bachelorhood is the best option at the time (spoiler alert: it is). But to judge this series by its pilot — still enjoyable, if somewhat straightforward — would be to miss out on one of the finest comedies to premiere in the last decade.
Tonally similar to FX’sLouieand HBO’s Girls, Netflix’s entry into the thinking millennial comedy genre is arguably one of the strongest of the pack, or to use Lena Dunham’s co-opted catch phrase, “the voice of a generation.” Throughout the 10 episode series, the problems Ansari encounters on a day-to-day basis become inherently more his own; he tackles the complicated relationship children of immigrants face in America and the inexplicable difficulties networks seem to have of casting two minority actors of the same race in a project. Despite exploring seemingly niche categories, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang (a Parks and Recreation executive producer, and longtime Ansari friend) manage to do so with all the gravitas that makes the show so effortlessly relatable.
Take the stellar second episode, “Parents,” for example. Ansari and pal Brian (played by Kelvin Yu) open the episode by each shirking their father’s simple requests for help: an iPad update here, a grocery trip there. Rather than focus on Brian and Dev, the episode has each patriarch flash back to his youth in a montage of old country poverty, post-immigration struggles, and the difficulty of raising children already raised on entitlement. The episode, though sparse on gut-busting laughs, explores feelings rarely seen explored through comedy: gratitude for one’s parents and cross-cultural divides. In doing so, Yang and Ansari never appear to be commodifying their cultural heritage; instead it truly feels like someone finally knew how to live up to the TV development ethos of “write what you know.” And for most in their late-twenties and early-thirties, life is far more a journey of discovery than it is the comedic reactions of someone with all the answers.
The show isn’t without some problems. Given that it explores comedy that isn’t situational (a blessing for which many a beleaguered comedy viewer should be grateful), Ansari ends up doing far more showing than telling. Multiple scenes follow Ansari and friends walking and talking, eating and talking, talking while talking — all prompted by awkwardly direct questions about the subject at hand. The strategy works — no extra window dressing here to detract from the show’s central theme of disarming honesty — but it also leaves you wondering if at times we’ve fallen into Ansari’s therapy session, rather than a show. The quibble is minor; by the third episode, the straightforward manner feels more like a device than a transgression. By the fifth episode, it’s unrecognizable.
The show is one that absolutely gets better with time – which isn’t to say that it’s not worth watching the early episodes. The pilot alone introduces a love interest we don’t see until later in the season (Noël Wells of brief Saturday Night Live fame), toying with a narrative structure that isn’t quite episodic or serialized. A later episode with a Claire Danes cameo as a wife looking to cheat on her husband with Dev isn’t just a celebrity cameo shoehorned in (unlike certain other HBO comedies purporting to be the voice, or a voice, of a generation); Danes is electric as she gets to flex her comedy muscles. And all of this is anchored by Ansari himself – an actor with so much range, it never feels incongruous when he flip-flops between his loud, bombastic personality fans have grown to love in past years, and his newer, introspective role as Dev.
It’s clear with Master of None that Ansari is continuing his Modern Romance victory lap; his Live at Madison Square Garden comedy special from this spring remains his strongest standup work yet, and his sociologist-padded book Modern Romance is as clever as it is insightful. Master of None? It blows the rest of his oeuvre right out of the damn water. It’s excellent to see Ansari come into his own in a post-Parks and Recreation and Randy-yyyyy world. Master of None may make a bold claim in its title, but the title is ironic at best: with this series, Ansari shows he’s far more than a high-pitched one trick pony. He’s jack of all trades.