Like me, you may know Aziz Ansari mostly from Parks and Recreation, or possibly a couple of his good-to-great stand up specials. If you do, Master of None, his new Netflix-exclusive romantic-comedy series, is not what you might expect.
I mean, Aziz Ansari is Aziz Ansari. Your enjoyment of this show is almost completely dependent on you enjoying him. Not only is he the main character, the central feature of every single scene, he also co-wrote and co-directed it, like a more optimistic Louie. But in Master of None, he tones down the hyperactivity and tones up the likeability. And it works for him. In spades.
Master of None actually benefits where other Netflix-exclusive shows loses out. In my review of Narcos, I criticised the lack of involvement from the producers, saying that it often led to “slightly flabby outputs that lack focus”. For Masters of None, it has allowed Ansari the freedom to create a show that isn’t really about anything. In theory it’s about an American-Indian actor who is struggling to make his way in the industry, whilst coping with all the pressures that come from being in your early 30’s and trying to get your life together. But in reality, it’s about whatever he wants it to be about at that time.
The writing is spot on. At times showing an excellent use of wordplay, at others playing with expectations, it’s the kind of thing I wish I was able to write. It also takes the standard romantic comedy plot points and works with them in a (fairly) fresh way. But moreover, it’s incredibly sweet at times, and confronts some potentially difficult topics with humour and grace. Apart from the American pronunciation of “niche”. That thing is just ugly.
Ansari comes out of this with a great deal of credit. Rarely viewed as a leading man, he takes this opportunity and comes across incredibly well. Much of the programme follows his (often unsuccessful) attempts at dating. Striking a balance between being both awkward and unsuccessful in dating, whilst at the same time coming across as a potential great catch for someone, is a really difficult one, but one that Ansari absolutely nails.
If you try to learn about creative writing/script writing online, you will encounter quite a lot of advice about creating a programme that is about something. You need to be able to describe it in one sentence in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd.
These are about things, ways of explaining what the programme is and why you should be interested. If I had written Master of None no-one would pick it up, for two main reasons: a) it would be terrible, and b) it isn’t about anything. And it’s better for it.
That freedom allows the show to cover themes like racism in television casting, our relationships with our parents, and sexism/harassment, which are really tough themes to play with in both a comedic yet dignified way. It allows Ansari to cast his own parents as his fictional parents, which works far better than it should given their complete lack of acting skills. It also means they can take it in a different direction than you think, and therefore keeps it fresh despite a fairly formula approach.
But ultimately, this lack of “something” will be why it will end up being forgotten. As funny, sweet and smart as it is, chances are it’ll come and go and we won’t remember it. That’s a huge shame, as it’s absolutely fantastic.
Master of None Rating: Getting free tickets to opening night of The Sickening