Master of diverse stories

May 31, 2017

With its second season just out, Amy Muldoon reviews Aziz Ansari's Netflix series.

AZIZ ANSARI endeared himself to TV audiences for seven years as a self-involved, pop-culture-obsessed Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation.

A few years of successful touring and an unexpectedly scientific book about online dating titled Modern Romance later, Ansari has emerged at the helm of one of the most surprising new series, Master of None on Netflix. Now in its second season, the show continues to talk about race, class, immigration, love, sexuality, family, dating and, of course, food.

There is something quintessentially millennial about the show, both in its fashion-conscious, very "New York" vibe, but also in the feeling of seeking and not finding, and the inescapable awareness of all the inequalities surround the characters.

The title alludes to the Ansari's vague "lostness" that gives the show a slight taste of melancholy, despite amazing meals and charismatic friends. The hipness of the show is only skin deep; when it comes to content, Master of None is earnest, daring and compassionate. The show's depiction of young adults is complex, which lends weight to sometimes ridiculous or contrived situations.

Aziz Ansari (right) and Alessandra Mastronardi star in the new season of Master of None
Aziz Ansari (right) and Alessandra Mastronardi star in the new season of Master of None

Season 2 picks up where Season 1 left off, both in tone and topic. The first episode finds Ansari's character Dev in Italy and, in a hat-tip to Ansari's love of Italian culture, mimics the plot of The Bicycle Thief. The episode kicks off another season of troubled attempts to find love.

Drawing on the research used in Modern Romance, the fourth episode is a montage of dates ranging from the intolerable to promising. Some of the exchanges in the episode are drawn directly from anecdotes in the book--including the most cringeworthy example of how apps create the illusion that maybe someone more perfect is out there, like right now.

The episode "Religion" picks up where "Parents" left off, and given that Dev's family's religion is Islam, it's a welcome depiction of what is unique for Muslims versus what is more common for all children who grow up less religious than previous generations.

The episode provides a sensitive depiction of how religion is woven into culture, and parents' heartfelt desire to do right by their children. It also features two middle-aged married Indian Muslims decked out in team gear debating basketball, which is just one of the funny little nuggets that appears without comment. Given that the family in the episode is the real-life Ansari family, not professional actors, the episode is understated and somehow more realistic, even when stiff.

Review: Television

Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. Starring Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim and Lena Waithe. Available on Netflix.

CREATIVELY, LIKE another Netflix hit Bojack Horseman, the show uses whatever means are necessary to tell a story. While most follow the narrative of Dev making his way through what Modern Romance calls "emerging adulthood"--the time after you leave your parents' household, but before you establish your own family and career--many episodes are self-contained takes on social issues.

The stellar episode "New York, I Love You" slips from one tangentially connected situation to another, depicting the frictions of class, race, disability and sex that New Yorkers navigate daily. The episode has a throwaway reference to Seinfeld, but that "show about nothing" managed to live in a New York who's only concession to what working people face living here was the characters' constant obsession with apartments.

By contrast, this plotless episode seems to be about everything important, without a story arc or any recurring series characters to guide you. The formula of a series of linked vignettes--especially set in New York City--is a cliché, but the show's faith in its audience to not need to be told what to think at every moment gives it a freshness and warmth, despite some of the harshness New York can dole out.

The way the episode engages the viewer around disability is unexpected and subtly brilliant, and illustrates something unique about the series. While not an ensemble piece, the show uses multiple perspectives--never to say, "you can't understand this," but "look, I want to show you this," while expecting a sympathetic response. It is a generous perspective, both from the point of view of a star like Ansari stepping aside to let another actor be in the center, but also to show the importance of the many stories out there.

Given the predominance of a politics that says people from different groups can't understand each other, the show professes that connection is possible. In the startlingly direct Season 1 episode "Ladies and Gentlemen," after a friend is followed home from a bar, every female on the show relates stories of street harassment and online stalking. The episode culminates in a debate about how women experience and perceive sexism, and is worth watching for the final shouted resolution.

This season's "Thanksgiving" episode depicts the challenges of being a Black lesbian with tenderness and without blaming other Black people. The "issue" episodes still manage to be relationship episodes because of depths of the characters, and sincerity of the writing.

The critical success of Master of None would never have been possible in broadcast TV. The financial model of Netflix means not having to try to reach a universal audience, so creative teams can take more risks and tell a wider variety of stories. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the press in 2016: "We're not courting advertisers, because we're not targeting a single demographic."

Their success has forced their competitors to similarly embrace of diverse stories. Not every show has to be Game of Thrones--a show like Girls has a smaller audience, but guarantees another loyal segment of subscribers. To the providers, it doesn't matter if you are paying $8 or $15 a month to watch 10 shows or one, as long as you pay your bill. In fact, the more people they can hook on a single show, the better, as it expands their base to a new demographic they previously missed.

Netflix has grown at an incredible rate, and the proportion of its budget committed to original content is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2020. We could be headed for an oversaturation of the market, but with shows like Master of None filling the pipeline, it's one crisis of overproduction that will be enjoyable to watch.

Further Reading

From the archives