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Master of None (2015)

Master of None

I gave up on TV a long time ago, especially network TV. Parks and Rec, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and the like are not on the viewing schedule. Occasionally HBO gets it right (Eastbound and Down, Bored to Death, Silicon Valley), but for the most part sitcoms are a dead art (except for Louie). Both AMC and Netflix managed to rescue the “prestige” drama with their respective critical and commercial hits, and now Netflix has resurrected the sitcom with Master of None.

The show follows Dev, a working actor in NYC living well off his Go-Gurt commercial while trying to land larger roles. In between auditioning he goes out on dates and hangs with his friends. The crew includes Taiwanese-American Brian, black lesbian Denice (Lena Waithe), and white, loveable goof Arnold (Eric Wareheim). The stories oscillate between silly, cringe-worthy, and sweet mixed with a little sad. Ethnicity factors prominently in a few poignant episodes, but the character’s backgrounds are not there as a gimmick. This is just a part of life that hasn’t been expressed on the small screen before.

What sets Master of None apart is not just its racial diversity, but its feeling of realism and authenticity (which is rare for a genre commonly associated with artificiality). Somehow, the “wacky shenanigans” Dev and his friends get themselves into don’t feel so wacky. The show not only subverts stereotypical character tropes, but the conventions of the sitcom in general. Every episode is different: the first has to do with questioning a future as a parent; the second revolves around what it’s like as the child of an immigrant family; the third is a bad date; the fourth addresses offensive roles for minority actors; you get the idea. These are all plausible issues a 30-something, single, Indian actor in NYC would encounter, rather than the typical, formulaic, manufactured “situation.” The humor is built into the lives of the characters and the absurdity encountered in everyday life. The wit present in Ansari’s stand-up gets its fullest expression in Master, with understated depth and a broader acting range. The jokes are so fully integrated with (and in support of) the narrative, you laugh without even realizing there was a set-up.

Adding to this overall realistic feeling is the choice to shoot on location, and the directors’ heavy reliance on medium close-ups. Like Louie, this gives a sense of the very real place these characters inhabit. Filming in actual NYC shops, cafes, restaurants, and sidewalks adds to your identification with Dev and his cohorts. The close shots situate the audience sitting across the table, part of this circle of intelligent but subtly goofy friends. The other reason for this closeness is to highlight the modern obsession with smartphones, and technology in general: reading a text aloud at the dinner table to ask advice is the new way of life and dating; every social media outlet must be checked to decide where to get a taco; Google settles any dispute; mis-forwarded emails wreak havoc; and Dad needs help with his iPad settings.

Ultimately, the beauty of this show is that you can’t pin it down to one particular plotline, gimmick, theme, joke, or subtext. There is a multiplicity of issues at work here, just like in life.


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