In an age where a brand new TV show can premiere the same day its creator was publicly concerned that it’s already being overhyped, “Master Of None,” a sitcom (of sorts) now available on Netflix from creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, is a wealth of refreshing contradictions. It’s thrillingly modern, progressive, and very much of-the-moment, but also timeless in execution. It’s utterly bingeable, revealing layers of thematic and narrative resonance when viewed as one long five-hour story, yet each individual chapter can be enjoyed at random as a standalone work. So, please stop worrying Aziz. Take a deep breath, and rest easy, the show is a fantastic accomplishment.
Even calling it a sitcom is misleading, even if, technically, that’s exactly what it is (I warned you, contradictions abound). All ten episodes are basically complete short films in and of themselves, with at least three of them contenders for some of the best work in that medium I’ve seen in years. The show is in line with “Louie” and “Maron,” following Ansari’s Dev, a New York actor who mostly does commercials. Throughout the season he goes through his modern single existence dating, tangling with romance, and trying to figure out his career as he turns toward trying to land movie roles. Mostly, though, he ends up gabbing with his friends (series regulars Eric Wareheim, Kelvin Yu and Lena Waithe) at cool bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Ansari and Yang, both formerly of “Parks And Recreation” (the latter a writer on the show), have not only made a genuinely humane and very funny piece of visual entertainment, but they’ve actually pushed the form into very exciting places with this first season.
“Master Of None” uses its wonderful overarching series title as an entry point to present each single story (or episode) and its core idea, and doesn’t ask the audience to hang in there and get through x-number of episodes until the good stuff starts. From the start right through the finale, it’s a delight to experience. It’s clear that Ansari and Yang have done their auteur homework. There’s a consistent, classy look that holds it all together, yet there’s always space for a clever stylistic tic to elucidate and expand on an idea (the editing and use of flashbacks is impeccable, for instance). Favoring languorous long takes, sometimes in static camera setups but more often in gracefully orchestrated steadicam shots, it’s all the better to take in the New York setting and all the great, lived-in and real locations. Series cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard (he shot Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” and operated camera on the ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ films), works with a great batch of directors (James Ponsoldt, Lynn Shelton, Eric Wareheim pulling double duty) to create a gorgeous look for the show, and one presented in 2.35 scope, an unconventional choice for a sitcom, but one that works very well.
While the show is wonderful to look at, it’s all elevated when paired with a solid music selections and an earthy sound design. The eclectic, inspired soundtrack choices range from Aphex Twin to Rick Springfield, Lou Reed to D’Angelo, Emmylou Harris to The Zombies all feature (check out the Spotify playlist) and John Carpenter gets a shout-out during a sequence in episode seven where a woman’s uncomfortable walk home through the threatening streets of late night New York City is backed by several familiar synth tracks from the creepy “Halloween” score.
This review could easily have just been an epic laundry list of standalone great moments. There are innumerable sequences that transfix, amuse, fascinate and even a few that’ll make you shed a few tears. This piece of music here. A snap edit or impeccably cut montage there. And even the opening credits, which are established in a similar fashion to “Girls,” arriving with new music, and at a different moment with each episode, are preceded by a concise prologue that sets up the next thirty minutes to come.
The cast is also a pleasure to watch perform. Ansari, who also co-wrote the series, gives himself more range and different notes to play than Tom Haverford on “Parks & Recreation.” And he makes the most of it. While some of Tom’s personality surfaces, Ansari is certainly much more dialled down and relishes the chance to find the pockets between drama and comedy. The broader comedy goes to Wareheim as Arnold, and his oddball personality actually fits quite well into realistic approach “Master Of None” otherwise takes. The real big discovery for many will be relative unknown Noël Wells, who plays Dev’s love interest and eventual girlfriend Rachel, who brims with her own personality, and dimensionality. Meanwhile, the casting of Ansari’s own parents as Dev’s Mom and Dad is inspired, with his father in particular getting some big laughs.
Highlights across the ten episode season include “Parents” which kicks off with two nicely executed flashback sequences. “Indians On TV” makes a lot of strong points on the casual racism still existent in the entertainment industry without ever being didactic (the whole show pulls off this feat a lot actually), while “Mornings,” centered on Dev and Rachel, manages to cover more than six months in relationship time in a span of thirty minutes with an inspired conceit.
Not just funny, “Master Of None” brings largely unaddressed issues of sex and race into a mainstream comedy with smarts to spare. It’s hugely entertaining, but also cinematic, novelistic, and adventurous; surreal and silly one moment, then truly invested in realism the next. It’s also really funny and insightful about 30-somethings living and working today, trying to make sense of our world and all the endless choices we now have. Season 2 will come with a lot of pressure to live up to this, but for now, there’s 10 episodes to enjoy and dig into. [A]
Bonus: Here’s over a 47 minute Fresh Air podcast chat with Aziz Ansari about “Master Of None.”