As Tom Haverford, the annoyingly irrepressible id of Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari was often tolerable only in small doses. Which made me initially wary of watching, let alone binge-watching, the 10 episodes of Master of None, which spotlights co-creator/auteur Ansari as Dev, a would-be actor who at 30 years old is struggling with his sense of purpose even more than with his so-far non-happening career.
The manic aspects of Ansari's more childlike enthusiasms have mostly been toned down in this unexpectedly endearing coming-of-adult-age comedy. He still calls his girlfriend "Boo," refers to his more casual shoes as "sneak-ies" and spends the opening section of the first (and least) episode obsessing on the procreative tendencies of pre-ejaculate after his condom breaks during sex. A little bit rom-com and a whole lot indie-film in its sensibilities, Master evolves episodically into a masterful meditation on life, love, friendship and family. Bittersweet and bawdy, it's like a loosey-goosey Louie before the exhaustion of responsibility for anyone else has set in.
The series peaks early with the second episode, as Dev and his Asian buddy Brian (Kelvin Yu) take stock of their parents' immigrant experiences (shown in stark flashbacks), reflecting on the sacrifices made by the previous generation to allow their own to self-obsess on meaningless pastimes. Ansari's own father, Shoukath Ansari, plays Dev's dad, adding to the authenticity with his delightfully off-kilter readings. "Fun is a luxury only your generation really has," he says, and yet he doesn't condemn Dev's questionable choices, which include pursuing a not-quite-livelihood that lands him in the cast of a cheesy "black virus movie" called The Sickening. This subplot, which features H. Jon Benjamin (Archer) and Colin Salmon in amusing recurring roles, adds absurdist flair to the more relatable slice-of-life scenarios.
Ansari's identity as an Indian on the fringes on entertainment pays off beautifully in an episode smartly sending up show-biz hypocrisy, during which he loses one job—auditioning for the stereotyped role of "unnamed cab driver" in a Law & Order-type series—because he refuses to read with an accent, and then finds himself in the awkward position of competing with another Indian friend for a potentially lucrative role in a buddy sitcom because of the implicit rule that "there can't be two" of the same minority in any one TV show.
Master of None is even better when it widens its focus beyond behind-the-scenes satire, forcing Dev to cope in a real world of sexism, racism and ageism that continually challenges his naturally optimistic outlook. (One of the more satisfying episodes sends Dev out on the town with his girlfriend's grandmother, played with unsentimental relish by Lynn Cohen. This show provides a better-than-average binge experience because no two episodes are alike—the one where Dev hooks up with a married Claire Danes is pure outrageous farce, which reduces the sense of repetition while slowly fleshing out Dev's entourage of bohemian friends, including Noel Wells as his exceedingly tolerant girlfriend, Lena Waithe as an unflappable lesbian and Eric Wareheim (of comedy duo Tim and Eric) as a socially challenged lumbering giant.
It builds to an open-ended and open-hearted finale (titled "Finale") of soul-searching, as Dev confronts his doubts, disappointments and insecurities after attending a joyful wedding that makes him only more ambivalent about his future. That Master of None will have a future on Netflix seems certain, and I look forward to Dev's next chapter, although with hopes that he won't grow up too quickly.
Master of None, Premieres Friday, Nov. 6, on Netflix
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