‘Master of None’ Is Completely Unsubtle, and That’s What Makes It So Good
The Master of None season finale begins with Dev (Aziz Ansari) unable to decide what to have for lunch. Settling on tacos is only the beginning: tacos from where? Who has the best tacos? Which of these best tacos is the best of their best tacos? Later in a dream sequence, Dev can’t decide whether his good relationship with his girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells) is his best possible relationship. “You have to learn to make decisions, man,” his father (Shoukath Ansari, Aziz’s own father) tells him. To underscore the point, or rather emphasize it in enormous glowing neon letters, the episode includes a montage during which Dev reads aloud the fig tree section from The Bell Jar, a passage famously about the impossibility and necessity of making choices.
In an essay at Slate earlier this month, called, appropriately, “Against Subtlety,” writer Forrest Wickman challenged the tyranny of the current obsession with the barely perceptible. It’s not that subtlety is bad, but that it’s not all: bluntness, too, has artistic possibilities. “There is nothing wrong with the hand of the author being visible as long as its presence is purposeful and of a piece with the rest of the work,” he argues. The essay, which has nothing specifically to do with Master of None, except that I happened to read it the day before the show started streaming on Netflix, turns out to be a weirdly perfect companion piece, even if Master of None isn’t exactly the sledgehammer art Wickman is talking about.
Because Master of None is doing something you don’t see all that much in high-brow television comedy: it announces itself. It’s colossally unsubtle. It is not afraid of obvious metaphors, and it’s not afraid to veer dangerously close to sentimentality (to the point where you start to wonder — is sentimentality even that bad?). Hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes at once, Master of None is sharp, nuanced, and complicated, but it is not subtle. And not being subtle, having Big Ideas and Big Feelings about Core Life Issues, like love and death and family, and then stating them, explicitly and out loud, might be the most striking thing about the show.
There are a lot of other things that are striking about Master of None, which is surprising for a show that, on its surface, sounds like there might be nothing special about it at all. The short version: Aziz Ansari plays Dev, an Aziz Ansari-like working actor who’s living mainly off the residuals from a Go-Gurt commercial he did once. He might be about to get his big break in an absurdly terrible disaster movie called The Sickening. (As his understated and wise co-star Benjamin, H. Jon Benjamin is the unsung hero of the series.) Dev has a tight-knit sitcom friend crew: the oafish, endearingly bizarre Arnold (Eric Wareheim); Brooklyn parody Brian (Kelvin Yu), son of Taiwanese immigrants; and Denise (Lena Waithe, a standout), a black lesbian who is the most grounded of the bunch. While all three are fully fleshed-out characters, they mostly hang out at incredibly appealing restaurants discussing Dev’s attempted love life. But then, really, what do any of us do with our time? So: well-known comedian plays version of himself; navigates life and love in the big city with a little help from his motley friends. I think this show sounds potentially funny and likely delightful, and so do a lot of other people, presumably, because some version of this set up is the premise of a significant portion of what goes on TV.
And yet here, Ansari and co-writer/creator Alan Yang (a fellow Parks and Recreation alum) have created something that feels new. In part, this is because of sheer scope — topics explored in depth include, but are not limited to: racism in the entertainment industry; the patriarchy and the blissful idiocy of otherwise well-meaning men; the impossibility of choice in a world with too many options (in tacos, in partners); and the cultural disconnect between second-generation children and their immigrant parents. In part, this is because of the show’s unguarded sweetness. Master of None appreciates people, both individually and as a general concept; it’s a testament to the depth of the show (or a miracle) that this comes off as genuine rather than insipid. And if none of this compels you at all, Master of None might still be worth watching for the endless parade of lush and warmly lit interior spaces: it’s a joyfully optimistic show for many more meaningful reasons, but it is also an excellent reminder that we live in a world where such beautiful restaurants are possible.
But the reason all this fits together into something so singular is the brilliance of the show’s construction. Each episode has not only a topic but also a thesis statement, and a corresponding argument, attacked with laser-like precision. “Parents,” for example, is about the gulf between first-generation parents and their second-generation children. They won’t ever really understand everything about each other; there is no perfect cultural bridge to fully understand what their parents gave up so they could wander through Brooklyn, texting about ramen. The point is to try, because they love each other. (As in life, the details are always more interesting than the conclusions.)
In “Ladies and Gentleman,” Dev’s weirdly basic introduction to feminism, we get a juxtaposition of his traumatic experience walking through the park at night (he gets dog poop on his “sneakies”) and his female colleague’s (she gets gets followed home by a self-professed nice guy and has to barricade herself in her own apartment). This is followed up by more discussions of how men and women navigate the world. “Indians on TV” doesn’t just reference the power structures that make it so one Indian actor in a show is okay but two is too many: it confronts it, deeply and directly. (It’s arguably the most complicated exploration of a topic this season, encapsulating a lot of the issues Ansari writes about in his recent Times piece.) But what feels so particularly rare, and so delightfully uncool, about the show is its willingness to investigate ideas and arrive at bold, unequivocal conclusions at all.
Master of None works as well as it does because, while each episode may have a topic, each also fits into the greater world of the show, a vivid world populated by complicated, flawed, well-meaning, funny characters who are built up slowly, becoming increasingly nuanced until they feel, despite their sitcom touches, surprisingly like real humans. And this is never more true than in Dev’s developing relationship with Rachel, a music publicist (is “music publicist” television’s new “magazine writer”?), which technically begins with a one-night stand but actually begins with an epic first-date trip to Nashville. Despite its whimsical start, though, their romance doesn’t play out according to generic convention.
In a traditional romcom, the central couple is profoundly perfect together, if only they could overcome whatever is preventing their togetherness, and probably providing the plot. But there is an all-too-familiar brittleness to Dev and Rachel’s relationship; even as they settle in together, they never quite stop performing. It’s not obvious that they’re destined for each other, but it’s also genuinely not clear that they aren’t: the low-grade mania of their relationship is both delightful and stressful (for them, probably, but I mean for us). They don’t know what should happen to them, and the twist is that we don’t really know either. Unsubtle, after all, doesn’t have to mean uncomplicated.
One final note: According to the show, the best tacos in Brooklyn are at Tacos Morelos, which, it should be noted, has only four stars on Yelp. This is a rabbit hole we can all go down together, Dev-like, as we wait for an announcement regarding season two.