The building blocks of “Master of None” are not unusual: In the Netflix comedy, “Parks and Recreation” actor and standup comic Aziz Ansari plays Dev, a single guy in New York City whose intermittent acting gigs leave him a lot of time to hang out with his friends in cool bars and coffee shops. But the similarities to the show that featured the Central Perk gang — not to mention the dozens of sitcoms that aped “Friends” over the years —are passing at best. Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have ambitious plans for that sturdy premise, and they use it to smartly investigate matters of love and romance in the age of apps, as Ansari did in the recent book he co-authored, “Modern Romance.” Even more impressive than the relationship stories are “Master’s” adroit examinations of matters of gender and race, which are used as fodder for a bracing blend of nimble comedy and knowing cultural commentary. It’s as if an earnest op-ed piece came to vivid life in an effort to make the viewer laugh out loud — and succeeded in the attempt.
As is to be expected from a freshman comedy, some episodes of “Master” work better than others; in the early going, there is some stilted direction, and occasionally the cast seems less than relaxed. But the show doesn’t take long to find its groove, and by the end of the 10-episode season (in part due to stellar contributions from guest actors as varied as H. Jon Benjamin, Claire Danes, Noah Emmerich and Colin Salmon), an authentic and endearing hangout vibe is palpable.
An early standout is the second episode, in which Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) make an effort to spend time with their dads, both of whom are immigrants (Dev’s parents are from India and Brian’s moved to America from Taiwan). The episode deploys flashbacks from the men’s lives, and deftly depicts their stoicism in the face of bias and other serious obstacles, and the fathers’ interactions with each other and their sons are mined not just for laughs but for insights about the varied emotional vocabularies of the four men. All in all, the episode is light on its feet in part due to a well-executed running thread about how parents sacrifice a great deal so that their kids can be self-absorbed and obsessed with superficial concerns. Like “Black-ish,” “Master of None” does an admirable job of telling specific stories about race and culture, and combining them with universal themes about the real gulfs and the genuine affection between parents and children, and between individuals and communities.
That said, “Master of None’s” closest comedy cousins exist in another realm altogether. It’s easy to imagine that Dev’s friends share hangout spots with the characters from “Girls,” “Louie,” “You’re the Worst,” “Togetherness” and “Catastrophe,” a wave of sharp, self-aware comedies featuring characters whose self-awareness is often lacking as they pick their way across the minefield of commitment. Actually, Dev’s problem is that he wants something more exciting than mere commitment, and whether he’s pondering his love life or merely tacos, his smartphone and laptop often convince him that a more tantalizing possibility is just a click away. Dev’s decision-making process is derailed not just by FOMO (fear of missing out), but by the tyranny of too many choices, and Dev, who doesn’t struggle financially, sometimes realizes that’s a high-class problem to have. His father blithely reminds him that the older generation never had to contend with such a bewildering glut, and another episode does a fine job of depicting the life of an elderly woman whose lack of options are depicted with tenderness and real empathy. (By the way, Ansari’s own father and mother play his parents in “Master of None,” and casting directors should take note of their comedy chops. Ansari’s father, Shoukath, steals more than one scene out from under his son).
The standout episode of the first season is “Ladies and Gentlemen,” which is a fine distillation of “Master’s” approach: Each installment explores one subject in depth, and shifting perspectives and conversations that are by turns witty and challenging allow the characters to air differing points of view. This can make for some talky episodes — on occasion, “Master of None” can come off like an advice column put into script form — but in this instance, the show’s handling of a potentially difficult subject manages to be compassionate, hilarious and truly insightful. In “Ladies,” Dev tries not just to empathize with women around him who experience sexism, he tries to do something about it. The ways in which those efforts work and also backfire on him, and the fact that the show is honest about how Dev and other men often want to be rewarded for what should be unexceptional adult behavior, makes for an energizing and simply terrific half-hour.
In another episode, Dev almost gets a part in a mainstream sitcom, but his friend, Ravi (Ravi Patel), another Indian actor, is also in the running, and as network executives frankly admit to Dev, “there can’t be two.” Even as he explores various methods of challenging the network’s thinking, Dev admits to his friends that “black people just got to ‘there can be two’ status.” Not everyone agrees with Dev, who takes a stand against auditioning with a fake “Indian” accent or thinks about turning down the sitcom part if the producers won’t hire a truly diverse cast. His agent, an African-American woman (Danielle Brooks), tells him how much prejudiced nonsense she puts up with on a daily basis, then commands him to take the job and not “(expletive) up my ‘Friends’ money!”
The show’s knowing jabs at the entertainment industry are generally terrific (Todd Barry, who plays the jaded director of a schlock horror film, responds to Dev’s request to do some improv with a weary shrug: “Say whatever you want; this movie is not about words.”) On occasion, however, the development of characters other than Dev can feel a little thin; presumably more depth for the ensemble will come in a second season, which has not yet been commissioned but whose eventuality should be a slam-dunk.
Still, the crew around Dev is not just entertaining, it reflects what New York actually looks like, unlike many other high-profile programs set in the city. Eric Wareheim is charming as Arnold, the token white guy, who’s a big-hearted, sensitive dude whose advice is often terrible. Lena Waithe gives Ansari as good as she gets as his pithy yet loyal pal Denise, and given that she dates women and does so very successfully, Denise is much better at steering Dev’s dating strategy than Arnold is. If the storyline depicting Dev’s one long-term romance occasionally seems a little tame in comparison with rest of the show, it may be partly due to the fact that TV frequently explores the complications of finding love in the big city. But the medium is less successful and too often less willing to delve into to the knottier topics that “Master of None” explores so fearlessly and with such unexpected empathy.
“Master of None” is proof that when approached with genuine curiosity, witty self-awareness and clear-eyed intelligence, topics like race, immigration, sexism and entitlement can be terrific fodder for comedy. Dev may be drifting a bit, but “Master of None” sets exceptionally ambitious goals for itself — and for the most part, it nails them.