At a time when diversity in television is the hot topic in entertainment, how fitting it is for a show like “Master of None” to pop up and serve as the ideal example of what a unique voice can bring to the table. Well, voices really, as the Netflix comedy series is co-created by “Parks and Recreation” veterans Ansari (who played the too-big-for-a-small-town Tom Haverford) and Alan Yang (who served as a writer, director and producer on the NBC sitcom). But don’t expect any talking heads or docu-style dramatic zooms. “Master of None” is as carefully crafted as the artisan eateries its star loves to visit, specifically focused on discovering, displaying and understanding new perspectives.
Though the 10 episodes that make up Season 1 are serialized, each examines a different topic that’s easily outlined in a ’70s-era neon-lit title card. “Parents,” “Indians on TV,” “Old People” and “Mornings” are pretty self-explanatory in terms of what’s to come, but how those topics are examined is consistently surprising and refreshing. If “Masters of None” shares anything with its “Parks and Rec” roots, it’s that both shows are relentlessly positive. Dev, the New York-based actor played by Ansari, is the type of guy who seems fine with just about any scenario thrown at him. Deserted by his friends at a bar? He’ll enjoy the tasty beverages or chat it up with a few strangers. Unlucky in love? He’ll find a way to make a joke or get back out there absent any chips on his shoulders. It’s curiosity that drives Dev, and so it also drives the show.
That curiosity leads to questions; questions which are bounced off his core group of friends. Eric Wareheim (of “Tim and Eric” fame, who also directed a handful of episodes), plays Arnold, a giant man-child who’s devoted to his friends, a bit eccentric in his opinions and a partner in Dev’s constant quest for “the best” food available. Balancing out Arnold’s oddball antics is Brian (Kelvin Yu), a straight-laced, clean cut Average Joe who’s an intellectual equal to Dev (leading to some enlightening back-and-forth’s between the two), but more assured in his decisions. The group’s cool(est?) friend is Denise (Lena Waithe), the only woman of the bunch who carries a clear, firm disposition, sharp wit and absorbing dynamic.
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On another show, grouping three dudes (one white guy, an Indian and an Asian-American) and one black woman might feel like a business decision made to reach as many target demographics as possible. But here, each person has a distinct voice and a strong personality that push past any doubt as to their place in this reality. This is New York. This is the great American melting pot. This is the dream. This is, even more so, Dev’s reality. And it’s just nice to be a part of it.
Moreover, if there’s a throughline to the series beyond Dev’s day-to-day life (which is engaging in and of itself), it’s the pursuit of understanding everyone’s else’s day-to-day life. No show that I can recall has strived so hard to embody the ideal of “walk a mile in my shoes,” nor accomplished as much in the pursuit. While the pilot may at first feel like an insightful, but familiar journey through dating life, it’s only looking back that you see the trajectory established by its placement and the importance of how it introduces us to Dev himself. In essence, we see Dev’s life and then cut to his parents’ point of view in a magnificent episode simply titled, “Parents.” The perspective flip at the onset should signal binge viewers to be on their toes, as it’s a pattern that continues through the 10 episodes with great success.
Like “Louie” before it, “Master of None” is unpredictable in where it’s headed next. It uses the natural rhythms of life — of conversation — to move forward with the topics Ansari and Yang want to discuss. And those topics are pertinent to anyone and everyone watching. Inclusive subject matter leads to queries big and small, from “Why can’t we have a TV show with two minority stars?” to “What’s the standard for a good first date?” There’s not always a clear answer, but each and every speaking role in “Master of None” is held accountable for a thoughtful response. Dialogue is frank, up front and unbending. That can make it sound a little stiff sometimes, but the direct nature of the communication — meant to impart points of view more than fastidiously replicate everyone’s barroom chats — makes up for any concerns with authenticity. The discussion is real, even if the words aren’t put in quotes.
There are moments within these conversations that can feel insular; as though Ansari and Yang are only bouncing ideas off of a like-minded group of people. When Dev is tempted to sleep with someone he shouldn’t, the reasoning as to why it might be okay ignores certain ethical concerns in favor of practical reasoning. Not everything can be rationalized, but Dev doesn’t know it yet. He might later on, but Dev, and the show, apply an “adapt or die” mentality to everything — food, drinks, parties, dating, marriage, kids — just without the dire scenario of its back half (so, more like, “adapt because why not?”). Even if some ideas seem trapped in a bubble, outside opinions are always welcome within and are often invited. By not just remaining open to evolution but actively seeking it out, “Master of None” serves as proof that the idea of inclusion, of diversity both on-screen and off, can lead to everyone being happy.