The Netflix sitcom, written by and starring Aziz Ansari, is a quietly revolutionising the sitcom
As Netflix flexes its creative muscles and continues to expand in new territories around the world, the debut of each new ‘Netflix Original’ series seems to be coming faster and faster. This month alone, three shows see their entire first season dumped on the streaming service for binge consumption: tomorrow brings the sketch show With Bob & David arrive, a spiritual follow-up to a 90s HBO cult hit, Mr Show. Next Friday, it's the brute force of AKA Jessica Jones, the Marvel superheroine set to team up with Daredevil to clean up the criminal underbelly of New York, also streaming on the service. But it’s Master of None, which quietly debuted last week, that promises to have the widest and most lasting appeal, a revolutionary sitcom that grows better and better with each of its 10 episodes.
A co-creation of comedian Aziz Ansari and fellow Parks & Rec alum Alan Yang, the show takes in such wide topics as racism, identity, privilege, immigration, and birth control, weaving wonderfully offbeat humour into the narrative – and all that in just the first two episodes. It all centres around Ansari’s Dev, a first-generation Indian-American actor, whose career and personal life seem indelibly tied in a deeply personal way to Ansari’s own. In fact, in the touching second episode, which perfectly skewers the entitlements of the adult children of America’s immigrant communities, Ansari casts his own parents to play caricatures of themselves.
The series kicks off with Dev and Rachel (the wonderfully likeable Noël Wells) dealing with the immediate aftermath of a broken condom, and reacting in the way that only millennials would when facing an uncertain medical crisis – they turn to Google. The episode then sees Dev and his friend Arnold attending a children’s birthday party, delighted at the prospect of a bouncy castle, and contemplating what it would be like to have children when stuck in the delayed adolescence of being a near-30 single man.
The comedy, a mixture of observation, sensational fantasy sequences, and silly word play rarely lends itself to explosions of belly laughter, but builds consistently over the show’s run to a point when it's impossible not to like the characters on screen. In many ways, the show is like a transatlantic cousin of Ricky Gervais’ Extras, another story of an actor navigating show business and his personal life. But whereas that show relied heavily on stunt cameos of Hollywood actors playing pantomime versions of themselves – along with painfully blunt awkwardness that attempts to wring every possible laugh out of increasingly cringe comedy – Master of None is content and confident to let the viewer warm to it entirely on its terms. And it's all the better for it.
That’s why the distribution method works so well, with the series gaining ground in your admiration with each and every episode, available there for you to take in at your own pace, teasing you to watch another one with the coquettish countdown as the credits roll.
Take the time to savour them, because they are a beauty to watch; shot cinematically, the episodes knowingly nod to Woody Allen’s vision of New York, each episode listing its principal players in white text on black background. The score is like the hipster playlist you wish you were cool enough to compile, spanning decades, languages, genres, and styles.
The same could be said of the diverse and game cast, a hodgepodge of different races and many faces unknown to Irish audiences. As Dev, Ansari – certainly the most recognisable castmember in light of seven seasons on NBC’s Parks & Rec – is entirely fresh, stepping out of the shadows of Tom Haverford, the occasionally annoying upwardly-mobile ball of mania whose entrepreneurial antics in Pawnee made for arguably the most one-note character in a cast of harmoniously likeable one-note caricatures. Here his Dev is warm and flawed and curious, the all-American, all-consuming son of Indian immigrants, defined by his skin colour in an industry where attitudes towards race and ignorance diffuse across the screen like a sort of ‘hopelesse’ oblige.
But everyone else on screen holds their own as well, with Rachel as far from the stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl as possible. She’s as funny as Dev, and going through the same self-indulgent introspection that everyone else in their late 20s is.
Diversity is Master of None’s secret weapon, offering audiences a new take on the immigrant experience, from a new creative team, starring a new bunch of actors. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that it feels right at home on the newest way we consume TV.
Every Thursday, James talks Sean Moncrieff through what's making waves on the small screen this week. You can listen back to the podcast below: