It’s almost impossible to think of your own life outside the context of its relationship to the pop culture you consume. The reasons that songs, movies, television, and art work because the best seems to illuminate something that you’ve always suspected but could never articulate. Sometimes those moments are revelatory, and sometimes they are devastating. But it’s part of the enduring quality of pop culture: It tells us something familiar and new at the same time.
The trouble is, of course, that life doesn’t work as tidily as pop culture. Especially in the world of television, there’s a push/pull between people trying to enjoy shows “as life is” versus “as life should be.” But it’s a false binary, since life is too varied to be reduced down to a single associated narrative. Even those that hit extremely close to home have fundamental, factual differences that defy direct comparison. But even so, it’s all too easy to attribute life experiences to artistic representation, as it’s the only way most of us have ever learned to process and make sense of the often senseless nature of reality.
Aziz Ansari’s “Master Of None” (all ten episodes debut on Netflix on November 6) is a masterful depiction of the relationship of art to life, of artifice to anarchy, of meticulousness to messiness. It’s one of the few television programs to simultaneously take advantage of the medium’s anthology possibilities while still uniting every episode through a consistent throughline. Along with “Parks And Recreation” writer Alan Yang, Ansari has crafted a 10-episode season that feels unique in the moment yet unified as a whole. And yet, as with shows such as “Louie” and “Enlightened,” a lot of the joy comes from not being sure exactly what you’re going to see when an episode starts.
Part of that surprise simply comes from the perspective of Ansari and Yang. Part of the promise of “Peak TV” should be an increase in perspectives offered by the glut of new programming, and yet few come nearly as close as this to offering up a new point of view of topics as universal as dating, work, and family. “Master Of None” should not be revolutionary for positioning Indian and Asian characters at the center of these topics, AND YET HERE WE ARE. Ansari’s character Dev is a struggling actor in New York City, and while I’m not usually a huge fan of Hollywood projects about Hollywood, I still have not seen THESE Hollywood stories, and thus was amused and horrified to see what lay in this previously hidden part of the entertainment world.
But if the inside baseball satire is good, it’s everything else that’s truly something else. At its heart, “Master Of None” is about the fear of commitment, not to relationships, but to anything resembling stasis. There is not one but two episodes in which Ansari and Yang give ample time to elderly characters, quickly sketching out entire lives in ways that resemble the speed and specificity one might find in Pixar’s “Up.” (The second one, which is late in the season, might be one of my five favorite episodes of TV in 2015.) The show’s cinematography augments these various storytelling techniques, using black-and-white photography, flashbacks, dream sequences, and artful framing when necessary to carry across the episode’s specific point of view. The show’s camerawork isn’t showy, but is deployed tastefully when a simply cover shot can’t convey the show’s meaning.
But this isn’t indulgent, scattershot storytelling: These figures loom large over every scene in which they are not in. Ansari and his group of friends are depicted as “The Paradox Of Choice Generation,” in which there isn’t just Peak TV but Peak Everything. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who didn’t have the luxury of things like “choice” or “fun,” Dev and his compatriots can spend hours looking for the best taco truck without any penalty. And when these people can do anything, they tend to do nothing. And even if they do something, they are almost perpetually convinced that they should be doing something else.
But rather than depict this cynically, “Master Of None” depicts this as a latent, almost benign bomb that could go off at any moment. A lot of this occurs in the relationship between Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells, an absolute revelation here), which is woven throughout the season. There’s something both comforting and deconstructive about their relationship: It doesn’t come close to following the “normal” path of such relationships, but it’s clear they enjoy each other and fundamentally understand one another. There’s also a clear indication that baked into what makes them work might be the seed of their ultimate demise.
It would be unfortunate if understandable if the show either used this chemistry to set up a tragedy or a rom-com happy ending. These are tropes with which these characters are familiar. And yet, “Master Of None” is keenly interested to giving voices to those so often voiceless in stories such as this, which makes the journey more important than the destination. Yes, “Master Of None” wants to give voice to Indian and Asian voices. But in addition to the aforementioned episodes dedicated to elderly characters, it spends another dedicated to exposing the hundred of ways men demean and diminish women on a daily basis. More often than not, Ansari gives the best material to other actors, allowing Dev to serve as both a conduit to these stories as well as the more-than-occasional inspiration for them.
This is show that suggests that we’re all so consumed with how our own version of narrative life is playing out that we all too easily forget that other people have lives worth sharing. Characters are obsessed with “paths” at the expense of “experience,” and worried that each decision made actually cuts off others at an increasingly exponential rate. And yet, the show does present joy throughout its ten episodes. These characters can enjoy the moment when they aren’t worried about the future. And when they let people into their lives, the results are usually positive. This can take the form of simply engaging with a stranger to learning something brand new about a family member. Ansari and Yang seem simultaneously delighted by the possibility of the world while understanding that such possibility usually remains only that.
As such, “Master Of None” gives away its central idea right in its title. This show is filled with smart, yet cripplingly self-aware characters that see their life choices dwindle like their Netflix queue after a bingewatch. The spectre of “what’s expected” hangs over them all, which either spins them towards YOLO or “oh no” with whiplash-inducing turns. Rather than commit to one thing, they try and indulge in everything. They want to be heard, yet talk so much that they drown each other out in the ensuing cacophony. It’s hysterical, heartbreaking, and altogether wonderful. It’s familiar and yet like nothing you’ve seen, and I can’t recommend it enough.