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Josh Reviews Master of None: Season One!

I discovered Aziz Ansari on Parks and Rec, and was immediately a big fan.  (Moment of somber reflection for Parks and Rec, a wonderful show that I miss terribly!)  Parks and Rec led me to his stand-up, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  And so I was excited and intrigued when I learned that Mr. Ansari would be creating a new show for Netflix.  Master of None captures Mr. Ansari’s comedic voice in a very specific, very enjoyable way.  Mr. Ansari created the show with Alan Yang and stars as Dev Shah, a 30 year-old struggling actor living in New York City.

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I’m hugely impressed by the growth Mr. Ansari has displayed, moving from a supporting character on a network TV show to co-creator of his own unique cable show.  Master of None feels like as specific, unique an expression of Mr. Ansari’s comedy and personality as Louie is of Louis C.K., and I’m not sure what higher complement I can give to Mr. Ansari and his show.

Master of None is phenomenal, a wonderful creation that feels like a very personal work for Mr. Ansari.  The show is clearly based on many of his experiences and topics to which he has given a lot of thought, from romance and dating in this modern era to the American experience of immigrants and their assimilated children.  The show has a very specific, unique rhythm, and I love how Mr. Ansari and his team have balanced the comedy (the show is very funny) with an interesting, well-fleshed-out dramatic story for Dev.  I love also how Mr. Ansari and his team have created a show that has a distinct arc, a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end that stretches over the ten episodes, while also allowing each individual episode to live and breathe as a distinct episode all on its own.  I’m a huge fan of serialization, and it’s been interesting to see how many cable shows over the past few years have leaned more heavily into serialization, with stories carrying over from episode-to-episode.  I love that in many respects, but it’s also started to lead to individual episodes losing any sort of distinct identity.  Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix recently wrote a great piece about this phenomenon.  I just finished Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and I’ll be writing more about that show here soon.  The show was phenomenal, but it was an extreme example of this sort of serialization.  I can’t imagine ever just randomly watching a middle episode from Jessica Jones.  If I want to experience the story again, I’ll watch the whole season start-to-finish.  By contrast, I was extremely impressed to see how Mr. Ansari and his team took a different approach with Master of None.  This ten episode first season is a complete story told over the course of those ten episodes, but each episode maintained its unique flavor.  I loved this about the show.  I loved how each episode had a specific focus and theme, and how the story-telling approach varied from episode-to-episode.

Mr. Ansari is effortless as Dev, the main character of the show.  He’s created a character who certainly feels very much like Mr. Ansari is just playing himself.  He even cast his own parents in the roles of Dev’s parents!  (More on that in a moment.)  I was intrigued that unlike, say, Louis C.K. in Louie or Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, that Mr. Ansari chose not to give the character his own name.  This seems to indicate, to me, that Mr. Ansari wants to differentiate the character Dev from his own personality and life.  Nevertheless, the character — and the whole show — works so well for me because it all feels so personal, so true-to-life, for Mr. Ansari.

I love the chutzpah of Mr. Aziz’s casting his own parents in the roles of Dev’s parents.  Shoukath and Fatima Ansari are both a hoot to watch.  I wouldn’t suggest that either one of them acts at a professional level, but they’re both so sweet that I found them to be hugely endearing.

Mr. Aziz has surrounded himself with a fun cadre of supporting actors as Dev’s circle of single thirty-something friends.  Eric Wareheim is a riot as Arnold, a ginormously tall fellow who reminds me a lot of Brian Posehn, both due to his build and also his very dry, laconic line delivery.  Mr. Wareheim is so, so funny, getting some of the show’s very best lines.  I have to admit that I know very little about Tim & Eric, the popular comedy duo of which Mr. Wareheim is the “Eric,” but based on his strong work in Master of None it seems that I need to start remedying that immediately.  Kelvin Yu is Brian, the son of Taiwanese immigrants.  We don’t get to know Brian all that well in this first season, though Mr. Yu is terrific in the stand-out second episode, “Parents,” in which Brian and Dev decide to try to learn more about the immigrant experience of their parents.  Lena Waithe is Denise.  I adored Ms. Waithe’s work in this first season.  She has such a unique tone and attitude and way of delivering her lines.  I really loved this character.  Then there is H. Jon Benjamin, a familiar character actor with a phenomenal deadpan delivery, who plays Benjamin, an actor co-staring with Dev in a “black virus” movie called “The Sickening.”  Mr. Benjamin has some of the funniest scenes in the whole show.  I also loved comedian Todd Barry as the asshole director of “The Sickening.”

But Mr. Ansari’s main co-star in this first season is Noel Wells as Rachel.  She and Dev share a somewhat unfortunate sexual mishap in the show’s very first scene.  I didn’t think we’d ever see that character again, but Rachel recurs throughout the season and, by the end, the story of her and Dev’s relationship becomes the main through-line of the show.  I was not at all familiar with Ms. Wells’ work before watching her in this show.  (I didn’t see any of her year on SNL in 2013-14, but while writing this review I watched the note-perfect SNL parody of Lena Dunham’s Girls, in which Ms. Wells plays Lena Dunham, and it was amazing.)  But needless to say, after Master of None, I am now a big fan of Ms. Wells.  Her character is wonderfully written, and I love the way Ms. Wells inhabits her.  Rachel isn’t a goofball comedic caricature nor is she just the straight-woman to Aziz Ansari’s antics as Dev.  No, Rachel — just like Dev — is a fully-rounded character who is funny and endearing while also feeling not like a comedic TV character but like a real human being.

There are many highlights of Master of None’s ten-episode run, but for me the clear head-and-shoulders stand-out is the penultimate episode, “Mornings,” which focuses almost exclusively on Rachel and Dev.  The two of them are in almost every scene, with only very brief glimpses of any other characters.  The structure of the episode is brilliant.  Taking place over the course of almost an entire year, the show chronicles a series of mornings in which Rachel and Dev wake up together, and through these scenes we follow the arc of their burgeoning relationship as they date, move in together, and eventually consider more.  It’s a gorgeous episode, filled with rich emotion, and it’s impressively ambitious in its scope.  Is there another half-hour episode of a comedic TV show that has ever tried to move the story of its characters forward by a full year??  In many ways, I wish the final moments of “Mornings” had been where we’d left Rachel and Dev at the end of this first season, rather than what  actually happens in the tenth and final episode.

The other stand-out, and the episode that got a lot of press in the build-up to the show’s release, is the second episode, “Parents.”  The show draws a marked contrast between the cushy, somewhat spoiled lifestyles of Dev and Brian with the far more difficult childhoods of their parents, who eventually chose to immigrate to America.  (Dev’s parents came from India, while Brian’s parents came from Taiwan.)  The episode is a poignant character study of Dev and Brian’s parents, and a heartfelt salute from Aziz Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang to the experiences of their parents, and to all immigrants.  It’s an important show to make in these days, when Americans’ fears of foreigners coming to our shores seems to be at a particular high.  “Parents” shines a spotlight on the courage and heroism of the young men and women who made the decision to leave everything and everyone behind in the pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children.

There are many other highlights of the season, from Dev’s deciding how to maneuver a “hot ticket” (a ticket to a popular show) to its most effective purpose in his dating life (an incisive look at dating in the modern world of texting and social media) in the episode “Hot Ticket,” to the contrasting of the experience of young men and young women in the city in the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen.”  I love how so many of the episodes in Master of None are based not on a wacky comedic premise but on an issue that Mr. Ansari and his team have clearly been wrestling with.  In that context, I also have to mention the very funny and very powerful episode “Indians on TV,” in which Dev and another Indian actor Ravi (Ravi Patel) wrestle with being asked to put on a fake Indian accent when auditioning for roles.

I’ve already highlighted the show’s strong ensemble of actors, and I should also note how Mr. Ansari and Mr. Yang have assembled a great team behind-the scenes as well.  The show is extraordinarily well-directed, by Mr. Ansari himself and Eric Wareheim, but also by Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister) and James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now).  The writing on the show is also incredibly strong, with Mr. Ansari and Mr. Yang writing almost every episode themselves.  Joe Mande (a writer for Parks and Rec who also appeared periodically on the show as Morris Lerpiss) contributed the script for “The Other Man” (a very funny installment in which Dev considers a fling with a married woman played by Claire Danes, only to run afowl of her aggrieved husband, played by The Americans Noah Emmerich), while the afore-mentioned “Ladies and Gentlemen” was written by Sarah Peters & Zoe Jarman.  Mr. Ansari has also repeatedly praised the contributions of the late Harris Wittels, a Parks and Recs writer who unfortunately passed away earlier this year.

Master of None is terrific.  It’s a very funny show that is also a very original, very clever creation with original approaches to its story-telling and its characters.  It’s a triumph for Aziz Ansari and his team of wonderful creators in front of and behind the camera.  I very much hope that a second season will be on its way to us soon.

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