The magic of Master of None is that it tells universal coming-of-age stories yet feels like it was crafted specifically to appeal to me.
Co-created by comedian Aziz Ansari and Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang, the wide-ranging Master of None touches on topics such as racism, sexism, privilege, the immigrant experience, dating in the 21st century and Eminem's "Lose Yourself." All of it is filtered through Ansari's worldview, making Master of None a deeply personal series that's cut from the same cloth as Louis CK's Louie and Lena Dunham's Girls.
Anything as auteur-driven as those kinds of projects runs the risk of becoming self-indulgent. But where something like Girls can occasionally devolve into millennial wankery, Ansari and Yang manage to avoid that pitfall — mostly — by focusing on relatable stories told with Woody Allen-like naturalism and observational humor, such as the aforementioned music argument. Much of the material is drawn from Ansari's stand-up comedy and his new book, Modern Romance, as well as from his personal experiences.
Master of None is a deeply personal series
Ansari stars as Dev Shah, a 30-year-old Indian-American trying to make it as an actor in New York City. Dev's cozy, well-appointed apartment indicates that he's doing fine living off the residuals from commercials, but he wants more out of his acting career, and indeed, out of life.
Master of None begins with Dev in the midst of a casual hookup when his condom breaks, and — after some quick sex ed via Google — he and his partner go to a pharmacy to buy the morning-after pill. Dev and one of his best buddies, Arnold (Eric Wareheim, lending the friendship a very Twins-like appearance), later attend a child's birthday party.
These two events kick off explorations of Master of None's overarching theme: the transition from your 20s into your 30s. In the premiere, "Plan B," the focus is on having children; much of the series is concerned with finding someone to have children with. Two episodes later, Dev happens to run into his one-night stand partner, Rachel (Noël Wells). They hit it off and have a great time; the chemistry between Wells and Ansari comes across immediately, selling the potential of the two characters as a couple.
Dev and Rachel's budding romance becomes the primary story arc in the season's second half. Episode nine, "Mornings," is the highlight of that run: an unflinching portrayal of the peaks and valleys of their first year together, compressed into a beautiful half-hour romantic comedy.
"Did they live happily ever after?" Rachel asks Dev one sleepless night, after he recounts the story of their relationship, which seems to have dodged a bullet for the moment.
"Mmm, I don't know about 'ever after,' but they're pretty happy now," Dev responds, as the episode ends.
It's the quintessential in-your-20s sentiment: living in the moment, not worrying about the far-off future. But by this point we've seen cracks starting to form in their bond, as they begin to consider the thought of spending the rest of their lives with each other.
"Did they live happily ever after?"
"Mmm, I don't know about 'ever after,' but they're pretty happy now."
Although much of Master of None is about Rachel and Dev, the show is far less concerned with continuity than a traditional TV series. A Netflix binge — which is something you'll want to go on with this show — tends to make everything run together, so the confined storytelling works in Master of None's favor. This is borne out aesthetically in the series' opening credits, which evoke the '70s with a title card and episode name against a black screen, outlining each installment as a stand-alone work. Many Master of None episodes are thoughtful slice-of-life vignettes in which Ansari and Yang take 30 minutes to engage with an issue that's interesting and important to them.
Episode two, "Parents," is a strong piece in this fashion that hit startlingly close to home for me. Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) are American-born children of immigrant parents from India and Taiwan, respectively. Through impressively evocative flashbacks, the episode draws sharp contrasts between the first-world problems that Brian and Dev deal with — like missing the trailers before a movie — and the incredible hardships their parents faced upon immigrating to America in the early 1980s, such as discrimination and a language barrier.
"We didn't do anything for fun," Dev's mother, Nisha, tells him with a scoff. This comes during a joint family dinner set up by Dev and Brian, in an effort to thank their parents and learn more about their lives. Dev's father, Ramesh, adds, "You realize fun is a new thing, right? Fun is a luxury only your generation really has."
Ansari cast his actual parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, to play Dev's father and mother, respectively, and while they're clearly not trained actors, I sincerely appreciated the realism they brought to Master of None. That exchange made me laugh wistfully, as I instantly pictured my own parents giving me a similar dose of real talk. They too left India for the U.S. in the '80s in an effort to give me and my brother a better life, making endless sacrifices so I could write about video games and pop culture for a living. That's certainly not lost on me, but I'm ashamed to admit that I, like Dev, often whine when they ask me to be their "computer guy." At the same time, Brian's commentary about Asian parents' high expectations and stoic demeanor matches my own experiences perfectly.
"is Mindy Kaling real?"
"Parents" goes well with Master of None's fourth episode, "Indians on TV," the season's finest. It opens with a sobering, damning montage of Indian stereotypes from TV, movies and Street Fighter 2, including actors in brownface. Then the opening credits roll, set to Ananda Shankar's sitar-tinged cover of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — the music selection in Master of None is fantastic, by the way — and the episode moves into an audition for a cab driver during which Dev declines to do an Indian accent.
"Look, I get it," Dev tells a fellow Indian actor, Ravi (Ravi Patel), afterward. "There probably is a Pradeep who runs a convenience store, and I have nothing against him, but why can't there be a Pradeep just once who's, like, an architect, or he designs mittens, or does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper's characters do in movies?" This comes to a head when Dev is accidentally forwarded an email chain in which a white male TV executive loves both Dev's and Ravi's auditions for a three-man sitcom, but says, "There can't be two" — because of course, two Indian people would make it an Indian show.
Ravi shares Dev's concerns about the representation of Indians on screen, but doesn't see anything wrong with performing an accent for a bit part as a cab driver. "I gotta work," Ravi points out, just before Dev brings up something that becomes Master of None's funniest running gag: Fisher Stevens' role in Short Circuit 2. I'm still laughing at the "is Mindy Kaling real?" line, and at Ravi attacking Dev for "being an Uncle Taj."
That discussion between Dev and Ravi is a prime example of something Master of None does admirably well. While everything (aside from a few sequences in the eye-opening seventh episode, "Ladies and Gentlemen") is relayed through Dev's point of view, the show gives everyone a fair shake.
Dev can be a self-centered jerk, but he's a fundamentally curious person, and he's open to differing perspectives. He's initially ignorant of the harassment that women put up with on a daily basis, so Rachel and Dev's friend Denise (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, explain how they've been followed home by men on numerous occasions. "If you're born with a vagina, everybody knows, creepy dudes are just a part of the deal," says Denise.
Master of None gives everyone a fair shake
The remarkable element of Master of None is that none of this comes off like a preachy after-school special or the "fair and balanced" facade of a certain cable news network. Instead, the show carries a strong sense of empathy for all of its characters, each of whom is allowed to be a unique individual with their own hopes, dreams, worries and motivations. Rachel isn't merely a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Dev to court; she's going through much of the same soul-searching he is, trying to figure out if she wants to give up her career ambitions for a "normal" adult life.
Even in 2015, few TV shows feature characters that are this well-drawn and diverse, let alone scenes in which three Indian people without accents have a conversation. I may have responded particularly strongly to Master of None because it arrived at the right time in my life with a story that I find eerily relatable — I'm a first-generation Indian immigrant who turned 29 today, and I'm wrestling with a lot of the existential questions that Ansari and Yang examine in the show.
But that's why Master of None is so important. By existing and being as great as it is, the series serves as a brilliant argument in favor of making films and TV shows more diverse, both in terms of the creative minds behind the camera and the actors in front of it.