Watching Master of None is a little strange, albeit in a good sense. It feels like watching our own lives, or maybe our friends’ lives, being retold to us through actors and a script. That is precisely what makes it effective, however: It doesn’t feel like television. Created for Netflix by comedian Aziz Ansari, who stars as Dev, an actor trying to find work in New York City, and Alan Yang, a screenwriter known for his work on Parks and Recreation, Master of None was released Nov. 6, but it is no doubt the funniest, most absurd and, at times, most thoughtful comedy of the season.
The series starts with Dev’s condom breaking during sex, and the painfully awkward exchange that you’d expect when that happens between two people who just met. After some Googling and deliberation on the parts of both Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells), they decide to take an Uber to get Plan B. Dev asks, “Um, there’s an UberX that’s, like, three minutes away, and there’s an UberBLACK that’s, like, 15 minutes away. Should I just UberX?”
He confirms with Rachel that UberX is okay, but not before making clear that the more expensive Uber was an option, saying, “Okay, I just didn’t want you to think I was being stingy with the Ubers.” It seems completely unnecessary to bring this up, but then again, perhaps not. These are, after all, the tiny things we do overthink in situations like this.
This scene is what sets the tone for Master of None: entirely funny, awkward, messy and altogether too real. It’s why we keep watching. Or, maybe, why you should start. It’s about dating in New York – modern love, to put it broadly – but also about everything else that comes in between. Master of None hits all the right spots. You wouldn’t expect to laugh at a scene in one episode where Dev spends hours on Google, Yelp and Eater trying to find the best taco in New York, only to find they’re sold out when he arrives, and then to feel a little guilty in the next episode, when Dev’s parents say all they want is for him to call more – but you do.
The cast could not be better. Notable characters include Benjamin (H. Jon Benjamin, whose distinctive voice you might know from Archer and Bob’s Burgers), who plays a fellow actor that helps Dev with his relationship problems. Also starring are Aziz’s real-life parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, who feature prominently in a touching episode, “Parents,” about immigrant parents’ relationships with their first-generation kids.
The show as a whole is hilarious, but it’s not just a comedy for comedy’s sake. Ansari and Yang hit the nail on subjects that are relevant today and don’t mince words, or episode titles, for that matter. “Indians on TV” and “Old People” are just some of the topics Master of None addresses.
“Indians on TV” talks about an issue we’ve become familiar with here at Williams, and perhaps too familiar with: cultural appropriation. It begins with clips referencing the Indians and Asians we see on TV and in movies, including Ashton Kutcher playing a Bollywood producer in a Popchips commercial the company would probably prefer us to forget. After meeting another Indian friend, Ravi (Ravi Patel), at an audition for a small part in a movie, Dev finds fault with the character, a taxi driver with a heavy accent. He laments, “Look, I get it. There probably is a Pradeep who is Indian and runs a convenience store. I have nothing against him, but why can’t there be a Pradeep just once, who’s like, an architect? Or who designs mittens or does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies?”
Given the talks and emails on cultural appropriation we’ve received here at the College, it may seem that there’s often a fine line drawn between what’s culturally “appropriate” and respectful and what’s not. Sometimes, it seems we may stray sensitive. But rather than making a huge outcry about the situation here – Indians not being cast for roles, or white actors playing Indian actors in brownface – Ansari criticizes it from a different perspective. Instead of being aggressively offended and didactic, “Indians on TV” makes us step back and laugh a little at the absurdity of the racism, so that we might come to terms with what we are doing wrong ourselves.
We’re halfway there – embracing diversity, but perhaps only somewhat. Thankfully, we’re now casting actual Indians and minorities, but unfortunately, we’re still putting them in the most un-diverse roles. We see Indians on TV – as cab drivers, scientists and IT guys. Asians, too – Ken Jeong is in a new ABC sitcom – but as a comedic physician. We’re doing some things right, writing in characters of color, but then not following through by casting them as we would white characters.
In a Nov. 10 article for The New York Times on acting and race in Hollywood, Ansari brings up Divya Narendra’s character in The Social Network being played by Max Minghella, an actor of Scottish, Italian and Chinese descent. But that’s not nearly the last example. We have Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, about Moses’ relationship with the Pharaoh Ramses, released last December and featuring a primarily white cast, despite its being set in Ancient Egypt; Emma Stone playing an Asian-American Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha – the list goes on.
We say something is funny when it doesn’t make sense, when something seems too coincidental it doesn’t fit, maybe even when it’s potentially wrong. Perhaps that is what Ansari and Yang are calling out in “Indians on TV.” It seems funny this subdued racism still exists today, that characters of color aren’t being played by actors of color both in the storyline of Master of None and in real life. What exactly is the reason we haven’t changed how characters are cast in movies and on TV?
Towards the end of the episode, Dev comes across an accidental email saying he and Ravi can’t both be cast in a new sitcom, with a network executive writing, “I don’t know, let’s meet them both and see who can curry our favor.” Dev asks his friends what he should do, unsure as to whether he should leak the email or not, and ends up saying something that rings a little too true for comfort:
“People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only really risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black people or gay people.”
We might chuckle a little at this bit, but it’s worth thinking about. Perhaps within racism itself, there are some more subtle layers of division. A related topic of discussion was brought up this past weekend, though on a much larger scale, when the bombings in Beirut were largely overshadowed by the attacks on Paris. Speaking of another issue at hand does not make light of any one tragedy, any one racism towards a specific group, but it’s to question (and subsequently fix) why one group isn’t being treated as seriously as another. Master of None highlights these concerns, and gets us thinking.
Tracking Dev’s dating life through the course of the season, Master of None makes us come to terms with the decisions we have to make as we realize we’re slowly getting older, making us think about something else entirely. This is brought up in the season finale, when Dev has to make some very real decisions about how his relationship with Rachel is going to proceed. Sometimes, there’s a desire to push things off in a relationship or certain situation, thinking that if you don’t address an issue, you won’t have to deal with the consequences of its decision. We do it all the time. But Ansari reminds us that not making a decision is really making a decision too, even if you don’t want to admit it.
We do have an easy decision at the end of all this, however, to watch the show. The thing about Netflix series is that the entire season comes out all at once, for better or worse. Just watch all the episodes. I’ve saved you the Googling, researching and scanning lists for “funniest rom-com on Netflix.” This is the one, for now.