Friday, November 13, 2015

Southern Charm: Aziz Ansari's Master of None

Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells in Netflix's Masters of None.

There are a long list of reasons why you should check out Aziz Ansari's new Netflix original series, Master of None. In addition to its patient and low-key storytelling, the comedy also offers a host of charming and genuinely human characters, refreshing and pointed takes on race, identity, and gender, not to mention some very funny things to say about texting. But the best reason why Master of None is en route to become the sleeper comedy hit of this fall television is Aziz Ansari himself.

Those who know Ansari through his long-running stint as Tom Haverford on NBC's Parks and Recreation or his stand-up comedy are likely familiar with the comedian's unassuming charm – but, even though I have been watching him for years, it wasn't until I watched Master of None last week, over a delightful two evenings, that I've ever felt I knew him. (In retrospect, the childlike enthusiasm of his on-screen personas likely kept him at a distance.) But yesterday, one week to the day since I watched the final episode of Master of None, I had a startling realization: I missed him. Okay, I didn't miss Mr. Ansari per se, but I missed Dev – his character on Master of None. I've been watching television my entire life and dozens of my favourite shows have come and gone – stories I have invested years in, and characters that I often even felt I grew up with – but this particular feeling was a new one. It was a poignant tug in my chest, and it took me a few moments to even identify it. But there is it was: after only ten episodes, and slightly less than 5 hours of airtime, Dev had somehow worked his way into my heart.

If you've only watched the first few episodes of Master of None, you likely would have found this as a surprising as I did. The series begins with the promise of semi-autobiographical vignettes from Ansari's life, dramatized through the experience of Dev, a struggling Indian-American actor living in Manhattan who shares many broad features of the creator's biography: both born in South Carolina to first-generation Indian parents who'd had an arranged marriage, both unmarried in their early 30s, both actor/comedians who love tacos, etc. (If I knew more about Ansari, I suspect the list would be far longer. ) But the stories and structures of those early episodes seemed entirely self-contained, with moments of dry, near sublime absurdity: Dev finally gets a date with an extremely pretty girl, who has an off-putting habit of slipping into an Eric Cartman impersonation; he spends time with British actor Colin Salmon (playing a brave, self-parodying version of himself) who turns out be obsessed with his lost cat and dominoes; he finds himself entwined in the intimate lives of a bizarre married couple (portrayed by Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich).

Long prepared by that master of non-continuity Louis C.K, I happily settled in for a kind slow-burn, millennial version of Louie: less existentially biting, and with more references to social media, but still largely episodic in nature. And until roughly the middle of Master of None's first season, this assumption worked fine. But then, abruptly it seems, continuity kicked in. Unbeknownst, to this viewer at least, the show had been taking on (narrative) weight the entire time, and the story and its central character just as suddenly came into focus. It wasn't simply that Dev had grown on me: it was that I'd been watching him grow. It is an old sitcom convention that characters can't really learn from experience, at least not without breaking the "situation" of the situation comedy. But Master of None turns out to be precisely a story of change: the slow coming into his own of a 30-year-old on the verge of making the first genuinely mature decisions of his life. The end result is perhaps one of most substantially real characters I've seen on television in a long while.

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe in Masters of None.

One might be tempted to attribute this to the autobiographical elements of the series. Ansari even decided to cast his own parents to play Dev's immigrant mother and father. But veracity isn't always the friend of truth. There are moments, for example, especially in the awkward – awkward in content and awkward in delivery – dating segments of the early episodes of Master of None, that I couldn't but feel that that only reason certain elements were included were because some version happened in "real life." And this, at the time, would quite regularly throw me out of my experience of the show. But I am happy to report that there is no hint of stunt-casting in having Fatima and Shoukath Ansari play Dev's parents. Ansari Sr., a doctor in real life and on screen, steals practically every scene he's in. (Because of my usual self-imposed media blackout in anticipation of this review, I didn't even know they were his real parents until IMDB revealed it to me earlier this morning, and Dev's father was already my favourite guest character in the series.)

I'm not a fan of the word "authenticity" – which is applied more often as not to speak of pedigree, rather than product – but Master of None has genuineness to spare. Two particular episodes stand out, both notably the ones Ansari himself directed (he also wrote or co-write nine of the ten episodes): the second episode, in which Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) decide to find out more about their immigrant parents' lives, and the sixth episode, where Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells) go an adventurous "first date" to Nashville. Both episodes have their own unique story structures, but it is the tone of the "Nashville" episode that still amazes me; with a distinctly mumblecore aesthetic, it is a half hour that is almost entirely devoid of tension or conflict. I'm not sure I've ever seen the first steps of a romance so sensitively portrayed. (The episode also includes a laugh-out-loud moment where Dev and Rachel rip it up on the dance floor of a honky-tonk bar utterly oblivious to the glaring looks the mixed-race couple are generating on the faces of the bar's older white patrons.) That burgeoning relationship, introduced off-handedly in the show's opening scenes, grows with a painterly restraint over the course of the entire season.

Over the course of ten episodes, Master of None takes on a number of social and political issues head on – including the casual and often not so casual racism of the film and television industries, the still under-told experiences of first-generation Americans and their families, and a stunning sequence that juxtaposes the very different experiences men and women have returning home from a bar after dark– and the show succeeds in broaching these topics with intelligence, insight, and humour. But, in the end, Master of None will live longer and more deeply in the heart than the head, and for that reason alone I will be eagerly awaiting a second season.

The first season of Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix.  A second season has yet to be confirmed.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.          

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