Why Aziz Ansari's 'Master Of None' Is Every Sitcom Rolled into One
Master of None, the latest Netflix series to inspire acclaim and feverish binge-watching, is hard to classify. On the surface, the show could not be more conventional: Thirtysomething comedic actor Aziz Ansari plays thirtysomething aspiring actor Dev Shah, a man-child navigating romantic, familial, and career challenges in New York City. Ansari, best-known for stealing scenes as the obnoxious-but-sweet Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, has spent more than a decade exploring the many facets of his persona in his stand-up sets, so you could simply consider Master of None to be his comedy-auteur showcase, a la Louie or Maron.
But the further you delve into Master of None, the stranger it becomes, revealing itself to be a formally-challenging show -- even when stacked against Netflix’s often boundary-pushing programming. Unlike the diabolical House of Cards, the zany Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or, um, whatever Bloodline is about, Master of None sheds its skin with each episode, embracing different sitcom tropes and micro-genres as it needs them. Just how many gears turn during its 10-episode run? Consider the following things you may have missed while breezing through season one:
The "Friends Living in New York" SitcomAh, there’s nothing better than hanging out with your best friends in New York City, right? Who doesn't love trading witty banter and playful barbs over pounding music as you sip $18 cocktails is bliss? At least that's the fantasy peddled by shows as wide-ranging as Friends, Sex and the City and, to a different degree, Girls. Certain Master Of None episodes, most notably “Plan B” and “Hot Ticket,” honor and subvert traditional #SquadGoals sitcom conventions by sending Dev and his crew (played by Eric Wareheim, Kelvin Yu, and Lena Waithe) on adventures both familiar (e.g., attending a birthday party, figuring out who to take to a concert) and thoroughly modern (e.g., binge-watching Sherlock in one evening). The twist here is that Dev’s friends seem like people you’d actually want to hang out with.
The "Meta Showbiz" SitcomOne of the show’s most talked-about sequences occurs right at the beginning of “Indians on TV,” a provocative, episode-long exploration of the challenges faced by minority actors looking to break through the often racist casting process of mainstream entertainment. The episode opens with a few clips from movies and television in which non-Indian actors are portraying Indians, such as Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2 and Ashton Kutcher in that horrifying Popchips commercial, and it is used to illustrate why Dev won't take roles where he's required to adopt a stereotypical Indian accent. With its penetrating focus on the struggles of minority actors, Master of None already sets itself apart from most Hollywood satires. But because Dev is a working commercial actor surviving at the margins of fame and celebrity, the show doesn’t get bogged down in the played-out wish-fulfillment fantasy of an Entourage or the “let’s cast real celebrities as dick-ish versions of themselves” cringe comedy of Extras. Ansari's take is just earnest and funny.
The "Multigenerational Family" SitcomSome of the most heartwarming and charming points in Master of None come from Dev’s parents, played with dry humor and wit by Ansari's actual parents, Fatima and Shoukath Ansari. The episode that centers around them, aptly titled “Parents,” is a touching and melancholy look at the relationships between immigrants and the often ungrateful and comparably privileged children they raised after arriving in America. It evokes the warm, acerbic humor of shows like All in the Family and Modern Family without resorting to having the parents act as a continuous source of confusion for Dev. The limited screen time allotted to Dev’s parents makes their appearances pop even more, especially when Dev's dad lets out one of his patented maaaans.
The "Adult Swim–Style, Postmodern" SitcomIn addition to co-starring as Dev’s hug-loving friend Arnold, experimental comedy godhead Eric Wareheim directed four episodes of the show. His surreal, oft-kilter sensibility rears its head at multiple times, and not just in the episodes he helmed. In “Old People,” Wareheim’s character befriends Paro the Seal, a very real therapeutic baby robot, eventually treating it like a real pet. In a less shape-shifting show, a plot-line like this, which feels more like a bizarre meta sitcom B-story you’d find on Children’s Hospital or John Glaser’s brilliant Delocated, would feel out of place. But here, it fits right in with the previously established, free-wheeling tone.
The "Slow-Build Rom-Com" SitcomLike New Girl, You’re the Worst or Togetherness, Master of None is a show about the peculiarities of modern relationships that doesn't immediately announce itself as such. Dev’s love interest Rachel, played by one-season SNL vet Noël Wells, is introduced in the first episode and eventually becomes a key role, but the character appears only sporadically early on in the season. A more conventional series like The Office might let its keystone relationship evolve over multiple seasons. Master of None plays fast and loose with time; a year passes over the course of the season without making a big deal about it. That type of inventive plotting sets the stage for the episode “Mornings,” a delicate, impressionistic take on a common sitcom problem: moving in together. That elasticity lets the show go to emotional and psychological places that other more timid shows would shy away from.
Ultimately, as the season’s final episode reveals, that indecisiveness isn’t a flaw or a bug in the show; it's reflective of Dev’s mental state. Whether he’s worrying about his relationship with Rachel after hearing the heartfelt devotional vows of a couple at a wedding, contemplating a career change after being cut out of a zombie film, or trying to find the perfect taco truck, Dev is constantly gripped by the modern anxiety of unlimited choice. It’s the same feeling of creeping existential dread that happens when you fire up Netflix and start scrolling through through the streaming options, each image offering up a different path to take on a quiet Saturday night. Master of None offers the perfect solution: take a little bit of everything. That way you don’t have to worry about what you might be missing.
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Dan Jackson is a Staff Writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he's never met a sitcom trope he didn't want to re-contextualize. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.