I should probably begin this review of Aziz Ansari’s new show by unpacking my strong anti-Aziz bias for some years. This bias was a product of multiple things, some of which are admittedly unfair because they are personal in nature: (1) People sincerely mistake me for Aziz regularly, especially when I rock a little stubble, which can get really annoying; (2) I had an 11-year career at NYC Parks & Recreation and also grew up in Indiana for 7 years, prompting many people who know I’m not Aziz Ansari to compare me to his character Tom Haverford on the NBC hit show (“You’re Aziz Ansari!”); (3) Despite my background (mine real, his fake) I did not find said hit show Parks & Recreation funny or interesting at all, nor Ansari’s role in it, although many people inform me I gave up on it too soon; (4) I found Ansari’s standup comedy to be long litanies of un-funny cliches and crude slapstick; (5) I hold Indians in American media to unfairly high standards partially due to their lack of representation, my unfulfilled desire to idolize someone in it, and my own aspiration to be a voice in it; and (6) On top of all this SO many people like Aziz Ansari, especially girls I know or go on dates with.
They constantly ask me my opinion of him as a thirty-something Indian-American living in New York till I say I honestly am not a big fan. Then I have to explain why, after which (too predictably) the non-Indian girls especially would look at me, puzzled and like, almost hurt. Wait, don’t you, Bobby Jindal, Mahatma Gandhi, and Aziz Ansari HAVE to stick together at least in my head?
After hearing friends, family, and even strangers on the subway encourage me to give his new show a try, I did so with my best friend, sister, and cousin. We all LOL’d. My opinion changed in one fell swoop with the release of the new Netflix show, Master of None. For the first time, I thoroughly respect Aziz Ansari and am even looking forward to additional seasons, having completed the first season. Here’s why.
Like every show that has explored Indian-ness in the history of American fictional television, watchers of Master of None will be bombarded with a number of cliches and predictable laugh lines at the expense of Ansari’s character Dev or other brown characters. I’ve written about this unhappy phenomenon before. But Master of None has done something we have never seen before. It is the first US show that digs into the deeper levels beyond the cliches and beyond the slapstick humor, into genuine conundrums and downright weird situations faced by Indian-Americans, with surprising level of detail, even in the liberal City of New York.
What separates Master of None is that it’s got a perfectly realistic tone and pace in believable social situations. For example, Dev bumps into career-jeopardizing racism at TV studios where he is trying to get a part, and spends the better part of an episode trying to figure out how to deal with it- and receiving advice on the subject from a panoply of likable friends and others including Chinese, blacks, whites, Indians, a lesbian, and a famous rapper. He has to decide whether to sell out his Indian friend or not when he learns only one Indian can be cast by the studio. He has to decide whether to publicly harm the studio on social media. And he learns, in scenes that are both funny and serious, that everything is not as it seems. (Episode 4: Indians on TV)
In another episode, he deals with parents and other elders who come from a very different place and a very different time that no longer exist- 70’s and 80’s India. The show does not just make fun of them and their heavy accents (though there’s plenty of that), but also shows their side of the story, why they are the way they are. In a brilliant and heart-warming stroke, Ansari’s real parents play his parents on the show and absolutely crush it. Many Indian-Americans can identify with parents from whom you might hide a one-year relationship with, say, a white girl. (Episode 2: Parents)
Dev’s world doesn’t only delve into racism and diversity, but also other serious issues of today such as sexism, ageism, unwanted pregnancy, new technology and dating in the digital age, divorce, spoiled kids, and sexuality. You will meet characters you never see on TV, such as a muscular Indian meathead bro. All are dealt with in a sincere fashion while the show stays funny. Watchers will also be entertained to observe someone living a relatively fun and glamorous New York lifestyle as a minor celebrity with a nice apartment, with plenty of money to spend on nightlife and eating out.
That being said, the episodes that don’t lean heavily on Dev’s background (Episode 2 and Episode 4) are not quite as impressive as those two. They are still good shows and worth watching, but far less on the cutting edge. Though in this show Ansari comes across as a highly likable dude with a moral center, he unfortunately every now and then slips into his un-funny self and annoying twang as part of his shtick. However, Ansari is helped by what I consider to be an exceptionally strong cast of friends and other characters around him, all of whom act like real people in real situations. Dev’s love interest in particular, played by Noel Wells, is so realistic you might think the actress was just being herself on the set of the show. Meanwhile, the brilliant H. Jon Benjamin steals a number of scenes in the season as an older, wiser colleague of Dev’s and that oh-so-soothing voice worthy of an international playboy spy.
Master of None, if you have not seen it, is worth seeing for anyone as a historic turning point in Indian-American comedy. It is the most realistic one to date on TV, and dives into deeper layers of nuance and social issues than I’ve ever seen an Indian-American character do. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. And now when people confront me for my thoughts about Aziz Ansari, I can respond positively and even smile for the first time. It’s so much nicer to be positive than negative, isn’t it? Thanks for stepping up your game, Aziz.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor