by Francis Adams
As someone previously unfamiliar with Aziz Ansari—known primarily for his role as Tom Haverford on the hit NBC show Parks and Recreation—I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across his new Netflix series, Master of None. I found on one hand a brilliant comedian, and on the other, an artist whose bold, creative vision is unique in so many ways. The show centers on Ansari’s semi-autobiographical character, Dev, and his foibles in navigating the strange territory of being single in New York and in being an aspiring actor whose identity as an Indian man complicates his avowed pursuit for “that David Schwimmer money”.
NOne of the achievements of the show is its ability to seamlessly combine the witty, lighthearted humor of a show like Seinfeld with a real concern for probing difficult questions that Ansari himself faces. Among these is the problem of racial representation in the entertainment industry. In the episode, “Indians on TV,” Dev arrives at a movie audition for the part of “unnamed cab driver” to find that all the actors in the waiting room are Indian, and that the people running the audition require him to do the thing he dreads most: “the accent thing.” Later in the episode, Dev learns that he and his actor friend, Ruvi, are both being considered for roles as leads on a TV sitcom, but that only one of them can be chosen because the producer says, “There can’t be two Indian guys on a show”.
“Parents” is another episode that stands out for its nuanced exploration of the gap between second-generation immigrant children and their parents, whose life experiences are so vastly incongruent as to be potentially alienating. Dev and his Taiwanese friend, Brian, find themselves embarrassed for knowing almost nothing about their parents’ past lives and for not showing enough appreciation for the sacrifices they made to give their children a better life. Another of the more thoughtful and compassionate episodes is “Old People,” in which, after briefly meeting his friend Arthur’s grandfather soon before he dies, Dev reflects, “We just let old people chill out alone . . . and then they just die ” before going out and doing something about it.
Master of None sets aside a few such episodes to explore these kinds of weighty topics, but the central narrative is of Dev’s fumbling love life. The show features Saturday Night Live alum—Noël Wells—as Rachel, a charmingly quirky, young music publicist, who soon becomes Dev’s main love interest. One of the strengths of the show is the nuanced way in which their relationship develops over the course of just ten short episodes. (“Nashville” is a particularly endearing episode in which Dev takes a risk by surprising Rachel in taking her to Nashville on their first date). About a year passes, and we see that what started as an awkward hook-up flowers into a long-term relationship between two people I am only somewhat embarrassed to admit are “very cute” together—like Jim and Pam from The Office. They encounter problems, however, which eventually come to a head in the season finale when the two find themselves at a wedding, looking very awkward together as the bride and groom recite their vows. In a bit of surrealistic flight, we get inside Dev’s head as he imagines himself and Rachel as the bride and groom, standing before each other as the celebrant says, “Do you, Dev, take Rachel to be your partner in a possibly outdated institution in order to have a ‘normal life’? Are you ready to give up an idealistic search for a soul mate and try to make it work with Rachel, so that you can move forward with your life?” Then, to Rachel, “Do you, Rachel, promise to make a crazy eternal bond with this gentleman who you happen to be dating at the stage in your life when people normally get married?”
This particular moment in the show interested me as a Catholic because I think it gets to the heart of much of the uncertainty that has come to characterize our culture’s thinking about marriage. For Dev, marriage appears a “possibly outdated institution;” he and Rachel live together, so what exactly would being “married” add to their current situation? Is “getting married” something people just do as a way of settling?
In the end, aside from its being funny and charming, I appreciate this show for its willingness to grapple with difficult questions. When a lot of what is on TV remains terribly superficial in this regard (especially in exploring issues surrounding single life and marriage), it is refreshing to find an artist interested in probing such questions for their philosophic depth.