I’m not a big television watcher. I know we’re in what some critics are calling the second golden age of television or whatever, and I understand the compulsion to binge-watch, but it’s just not my style. Nothing really inspires me to sit down and spend four hours watching something that still has six hours of plotline remaining—it’s too much of a commitment, especially for an established show with four or five seasons. My usual m.o. is to watch a few episodes or maybe a season so that I can participate somewhat intelligently in pop culture conversations and understand SNL sketches.
So I was a little hesitant the other day when Gabe mentioned that he’d watched the first episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and that it was pretty good. “The episodes are little stories in themselves,” he said, “so you don’t need to catch up to watch the second episode.” We fired up ye olde Netflix.
I’m familiar with Aziz Ansari only from his Parks and Recreation fame. And he’s my least favorite character, by far. So I was immediately turned off when episode two, “Parents,” was basically a slightly less obnoxious Tom Haverford, now named Dev, walking around New York. I guess that’s just his genuine personality? Because why wouldn’t he think of a new non-Tom character to act as?
Anyway, things started looking up when we were introduced to Dev’s parents, who, it turns out, are Ansari’s actual parents. My quick research revealed that he couldn’t find any believable Indian actors to play his parents, so he just asked his actual parents. This is a theme that’s picked up in a later episode about race and Hollywood—why are Indian actors usually forced to play sterotypes? Dev and his friend Ravi decide it’s because Indians just aren’t “there yet.” “There can be two black guys on a show now, but there can’t be two Indian guys, otherwise it’s an Indian show,” Dev observes.
Master of None does well in its treatment of modern, applicable themes like casual racism, gender dynamics, and sex and dating as a twenty-something. It’s trying to do something new on TV, and I think it works—kind of.
My biggest issue with the show, and what makes me hesitate to keep watching (yes, this is a premature review; I’m only halfway through), is what I call the “after school special effect.” In the “Parents” episode, Dev and his friend Brian, both children of first-generation immigrants, decide that they don’t know enough about their parents’ lives. They honestly say something like, “Man, our parents probably had it rough. We should invite them to a dinner to learn more about their experiences so that we can better understand and appreciate the hardships they went through to provide better lives for us.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. But it’s honestly almost that bad. I wouldn’t be surprised if a character said, “Dev, we really shouldn’t do that cocaine. Think of the negative impact it could have on our personal and professional lives. Let’s just say no.” During that first episode, I kept waiting for them to crack a joke. Like, “hahaha, that dinner is such a hilarious idea, let’s actually NOT. Want to go play video games?” Maybe it’s a sign of our times that I was waiting for this genuine and heartwarming scene to turn ironic, but it just didn’t ring true.
In another episode, Dev sleeps with a married woman (Claire Danes) and gets caught by her scary husband, but it all turns out well when he runs into them a month later. The wife’s infidelity exposed deeper issues in their marriage, and they’ve actually completely turned thing around. They’re sickeningly happy, so thanks very much for helping us out, Dev. Funny how everything works out, isn’t it?
Pedantic, unrealistic morals and scripted, blandly delivered lines aside, I think the show suffers from something Ansari, or at least Dev, is actively trying not to fall into. In the episode about race in media, Dev and Ravi notice that there can’t be two Indian guys in a show. And sure, Master of None has two. But the problem is that they have one of everything else. One black lesbian best friend. One white male friend. One handsome Asian friend. One aggressive black business woman (his agent). One shallow Asian girl Dev goes on a date with. One, no wait, two, or, uh, actually three cute white girls Dev goes on dates with. I don’t think that many of our lives look like this. It’s too perfectly balanced and politically correct. If we’re honest, most of us probably share race with the majority of our best friends. Maybe it’d be different if we all lived in a big city like New York, but I wish the show would make more of an effort to at least discuss these sort of issues. If you’re going to sledgehammer viewers over the head with your morals and social critique, don’t turn around and lie about real life.
The show has its moments. Early on, Dev spends a night at the bar with this girl Rachel, with whom he has a little history. Outside at the end of the night, he goes in for a kiss, but Rachel’s not interested. What ensues is maybe the sweetest and most realistic dating scene I’ve seen on TV in a long time. Maybe he’s trying too hard, but Ansari has his charms.