Reviews, Screen, TV

Master of None: Seinfeld with a conscience, and hot damn it's good

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One episode of Netflix’s new ten-part series Master of None, titled Ladies and Gentlemen, follows two pairs of characters as they leave a busy bar. The director of this episode, Lynn Shelton, uses music to oscillate starkly between moods.
For protagonist Dev (Aziz Ansari) and his man-child pal Arnold (Eric Wareheim, of Tim & Eric fame), who have had a Seinfeldian conversation about not getting served, the sounds are light and fluffy. We understand this scene is happy-go-lucky; Dev steps in dog poo and dirties his favourite “sneakies”.
Meanwhile, Diana (Condola Rashad), who we saw being hit on at the bar, is caught in a moment more becoming of a thriller. The music is dark and jittery, suggesting something horrible might happen. She is alone and terrified: the potentially dangerous drunken man who came onto her is now following her home.
Dev and Diana are co-workers. On the set of an advertising commercial, they discover they were at the same place at the same time. Dev rants about how his night was awful, just awful; he couldn’t get a drink then ruined his favourite shoes. When he asks how her night was Diana answers “um…” and the show’s introductory credits appear, the conversation never completed.
From a screenwriting perspective it would usually be poor form to have a character summarise a moment the viewer has already witnessed. But Dev whinging about his uneventful Saturday evening emphasises the triviality of both what he is saying and what happened.
That triviality is an observation drawn by the writers (of this episode: Sarah Peters and Zoe Jarman) who lead the audience to compare one situation to another, and understand they don’t need to make too fine a point on it.
It is one small example of quality writing in an always interesting and at times superbly crafted show. Master of None premiered last week and, as m’colleague Ben Neutze observes has been attracting rave reviews like moths to a flood light. It has almost certainly received the best response from critics of any new television program from 2015.
The rest of Ladies and Gentlemen elaborates on ways women and men experience fundamentally different versions of the same reality. And thus, a picture of a world that self-evidently discriminates based on gender.
It is one thoughtful pit stop on a journey canvassing several meaty topics in very entertaining ways. They range from dealing with racial stereotyping (Dev is of Indian heritage) to interacting with ethnic parents in an Anglo-centric society and coming to terms with a romantic partner’s idiosyncrasies after moving in with them.
Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, both best known for their work on NBC’s Parks and Recreation (Ansari as an actor, Yang as a writer), Master of None seems to constantly, quietly contemplate its own identity, never boxing the writing in to a formula. Though it is very funny, Ansari and Yang refuse to pigeonhole it as a comedy. Certainly not a sitcom aspiring for a certain amount of laughs in a certain number of minutes.
Pegging it as a rom-com is better fit, though an umbrella label like that can be easily substituted for more specific and ambitious ones. A wily show biz satire with an inter-racial edge; a commentary on how pocket phone technology has had a profound impact on social interactions and civility.
“We can be shitty to people now and it’s accepted. It’s one of the great things about being alive today,” says Dev, having blown off one date via SMS for another, more attractive one. Ansari delivers his dialogue staccato, with a kind of yappy artifice, as if all this is one protracted stand-up routine and he needs to keep the pace up.
Needless to say, it’s a good performance. Despite flaws Dev is a nice guy, a fundamentally decent human being whose devices empower him to act with rapid-fire impropriety. George Costanza once remarked that he would rather live a life of unhappy marriage than confront the awkwardness of having to talk through a break up. One suspects these days he might just fire off a text message.
And while Dev is an all round better person, with a much clearer moral compass, he might be tempted to do the same. In Master of None that thought would likely be debated in a good-natured way, with the sad truth that breaking somebody’s heart is now as easy as reaching into your pocket (or not bothering to).
It feels like a long time a rom-com, certainly from television, has given us so many things to unpack. The show’s name stems from the figure of speech beginning “Jack of all trades but…” That might be a little self-deprecating. If this excellent series doesn’t master many things, it comes close enough.

2 responses to “Master of None: Seinfeld with a conscience, and hot damn it's good

  1. I could not agree less with your summation of Masters of None, the Aziz Ansari TV Show. I found the show to be contrived and boring.
    Have you watched it twice?
    I was very much looking forward to it but, after binge watching it by myself and then having to watch it again with friends, the jokes had none of Seinfeld’s staying power, it sounded more like an overheard conversation between first-year university students than the well-scripted tv show (a show that you expect to last through generations).
    The situations were painfully obvious, the characters were lacklustre and they gave off a similar air to a room filled with pretentious hipsters, all of whom are pretending too hard to be people they’re not.
    The soundtrack also tried to be painfully hip by merging 90s throwback classics with drive-time hits, never straying into territory that would require a musical knowledge beyond pressing play on a suggested Spotify playlist. At worst a semi-casual Triple J listener would have no problem recognising most, if not all, of the songs played, at best a NOVA listener would find it enjoyable.
    To me, this show represents everything that is wrong with our current wave of youth-oriented culture. Frankly, it’s lazy. The creators would rather slap a half-dozen meme-worthy references and a la mode Cosmopolitan Magazine-inspired-conversations together than risk alienating even a slither of their audience.
    You touched on the summation of this program – it’s trivial. It adds nothing to our cultural experience and demands nothing of its audience, all the while it flips between buzzwords and internet detritus with the lazy disassociation of a 12-year-old.
    To say I was disappointed would be too nice.

  2. I feel the Seinfeld similarity is pretty limited…two characters riffing on some incredibly minor point is very standard in sitcoms these days.
    It reminds me A LOT of Parks and Recreation – I feel Aziz’s character has many similarities with his character Tom Haverford – the sneakers are a perfect example of this. And his relationship with Denise is not unlike that he had with Donna on Parks and Rec.
    I feel tonally and visually it’s also pretty similar to Girls, except without Lena Dunham’s outrageousness.

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