Master of None

Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series is a canny social satire—and a truly great sitcom.

Aziz Ansari in Master of None.
Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells in Master of None.

Photo courtesy Netflix

Master of None begins with sex gone awry. Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari), a working actor, is humping and pumping over a woman named Rachel (Noël Wells), whom he has just met, when the condom breaks. For a moment, it seems we are in the familiar territory of the auteurist cringe comedy—think of Louie or Girls—in which an idiosyncratic personality encounters demanding, adult situations and awkwardness ensues. But Master of None’s first seconds are a kind of fake-out. The 10-episode series, co-created by Ansari and Alan Yang and arriving on Netflix this Friday, is not a cringe comedy but a comedy of manners, fascinated by anthropology and etiquette, by how we behave and how we should behave.

How should you text? How should you treat your parents? How should you react to racism? How should you react to sexism? How should you pick lunch? How should you pick a partner? How should you pick a life? These are just some of the questions Master of None considers, after the inciting “how should you proceed after the condom breaks?” question. To answer that one, Dev does a bit of Googling. He and Rachel Uber to a pharmacy. Once there, Dev “treats” Rachel to the Plan B pill and two bottles of Martinelli’s apple juice. Phones, pharmaceuticals, excellent juice, two near-strangers doing the best they can in an intimate situation: It’s not quite a prescription from Miss Manners, but Ansari makes for a better, more curious guide to the loopholes of the modern world anyhow.

Ansari is best known for playing douchebags: the hyperactive, dirty-talking brah Randy—or rather Raaaaaaaandy—and Parks and Recreation’s Tom “treat yo’ self” Haverford. But Master of None is not about douchebaggery but decency: Dev’s always reaching for it. His search is the stuff of a comedy that also doubles, triples, quadruples, and so on as a romantic comedy, naturalistic indie, sci-fi satire, paean to urban foodie culture, guide to texting best practices, commentary on race and gender, dramatization of the immigrant experience, exploration of the first-generation experience, and investigation of the living-and-loving-in-Brooklyn-and-Brooklyn-adjacent-boroughs experience.

Master of None is a Netflix show, but unlike other offerings from the streaming service, it does not fetishize continuity. There’s no “scenes from the previous episode” montage because, yes, you are probably binge-watching (I don’t know how you could resist) but also because none is required. Each episode revolves around a theme, often encapsulated by its name—“Plan B,” “Parents,” “Indians on TV”—that appears on screen like a movie title. Some characters recur from episode to episode, like Rachel, Dev’s parents (played by Ansari’s own parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari), and his crew of friends, which includes overgrown white weirdo Arnold (Eric Wareheim), who never met a bounce house he couldn’t dominate, black lesbian Denise (Lena Waithe), chill dispenser of sage advice, and Brian (Kelvin Yu), the son of Taiwanese immigrants who is also always on the hunt for the best lunch spot. But episodes are largely self-contained, playing like minimovies or live-action essays on the ethics of the subject at hand, which includes everything from adultery to assisted living facilities.

Ansari has a great eye for the ways that technology has destabilized manners. “We can be shitty to people, it’s one of the great things about being alive now!” Dev chortles when, having been treated inconsiderately over text, he pays that inconsideration forward. When he orders an Uber for Rachel, he lets her know that the UberX is closer to them than the Uber Black, lest she think he’s being cheap. A married woman (played by Claire Danes), inputs her number into Dev’s phone, so he can call when he changes his mind about adultery. Trying to decide where to have lunch, Dev falls into a black hole of Yelp reviews, “best of” lists, and Eater recommendations that ultimately keep him from having lunch. When the best of everything seems so easily available, whether its tacos or women, it’s hard to settle for very good.

Master of None knows that technology is just another venue for people to exhibit the same old bad behavior. In the second episode, “Parents,” Dev can’t be bothered to help his father organize his iPhone notifications. This rudeness kicks off a montage about his father’s journey to America. The message is clear: Dev’s father did so much for Dev to have a good life, and now Dev won’t even fix his phone. In the fourth episode, “Indians on TV,” Ansari explores the sorry history of Indians in Hollywood. Dev and a friend name Ravi (Ravi Patel) both audition for a sitcom about three regular guys. Dev is inadvertently forwarded an email chain that says he and Dev both nailed the audition but that there “can’t be two,” followed by an executive making a racist crack about how one will have to “curry favor.” The email has just made pre-existing racism transparent.

Ansari has a lot to say about racism in Hollywood. One of the only throughlines of the season is a movie Dev has been cast in, which he and everyone else refers to as the “black virus movie,” a disaster film about a contagion starring mostly people of color. “Indians on TV” begins with Dev refusing to do the “voice” in an audition for a Law and Order–type show and not even being considered for the job. The racist email leads to an inspired rant questioning why there can’t be “two,” in an episode that, by featuring more than two Indians—Dev, Ravi, and Ravi’s workout-obsessed cousin—is implicit proof that Dev is right.

But Master of None doesn’t just want to indict racism—though it wants to do that too—it wants to complicate it. The show observes an odd or offensive custom and then plays with it, as though mores are Jenga towers, tottering among us, and Master of None wants to see how many blocks it can pull out before the whole convention falls down. After Dev gets the email, he has to sort through his options: Leak it, accept an apology from the sheepish executive who wines and dines him at a Knicks game, or try to get Friends money (it’s a network sitcom) while putting a nonstereotypical Indian on television. Network TV, which ultimately offers Dev a gig playing the Balki role in a Perfect Strangers reboot, accent and all, is never exonerated, but Dev’s reaction to it, his disgust and his potential complicity, makes “Indians on TV” so much thornier, funnier, more personal and painful than it would be if it were only an entirely warranted broadside against Hollywood’s whiteness.

Synopsized, it can sound like the conclusions of some of the episodes are pat: Treat your parents with respect. Sexism is real. But Ansari is so devoted to thinking these ideas through that they never feel quite predictable. In “Indians on TV,” Busta Rhymes counsels Dev to take the money. In “Ladies and Gentleman,” about sexism, Dev and Denise get a subway masturbator arrested. They’re proud to have dealt with such a creep, but even the creep gets a moment of sympathy: What would they do, the masturbator asks, if what they were into was something they shouldn’t do in public? (“Ladies and Gentleman” is a good episode, but Master of None’s female-ally bona fides are best captured by the fact that Eat, Pray, Love and The Bell Jar ultimately prove to be Dev’s emotional lodestars.)

Master of None’s devotion to thinking things through is responsible for the weakest aspect of the show: the way Dev and his friends talk to each other, which is frontloaded in the early episodes. The dialogue is thoughtful and funny, but it has a stagey quality, at odds with the show’s general naturalism. (The episodes were directed by James Ponsoldt and Lynn Shelton, who are both experts at indie realism.) Because of the show’s fixation on getting to the bottom of social weirdnesses, conversations double as investigations. Exchanges are peppered with “good point,” as though people in conversation were really trying to hear each other out. There’s so much on the show’s mind, it has a hard time shooting the shit.

There is no such verisimilitude problem between Dev and Rachel, whose banter flies fast, furious, full of silly voices and never seems anything less than squee-ably real. Rom-coms have been enjoying a moment on television. Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, and The Mindy Project have proved that long-term relationships can be funny, sexy, enduring, and volatile all once. Master of None joins their ranks: the sweetest, realest, and most poignant of the bunch.

Master of None’s self-contained episodic structure is a perfect delivery system for supersized rom-com beats. It gives us “Nashville,” an entire episode about the couple’s first real date. It gives us “Mornings,” an episode-long version of the falling-in-love montage. Wells and Ansari have wonderful chemistry and cute nicknames for each other’s body parts. They fight about keeping the apartment clean and about sex and about the future. After patching up one argument, Dev calls it a draw, but Rachel knows the truth and runs down the street, chortling to anyone who can hear, “I had a fight with my boyfriend, and I just won that fight!”

Their dialogue has shades of Nora Ephron: It’s in the ease with which they speak to each other that we know they’re a matched pair. And it also has shades of Woody Allen, in Annie Hall mode: There’s a sweetness and a fleetingness to their rapport, a sense of nostalgia for their love, even as it’s happening. One night Dev regales Rachel with a fairy-tale version of their history. When she asks if the characters will live happily ever after, he replies, “I don’t know about forever, but they’re pretty happy right now.” Watching them, you will be too.