Master of None is a show built in Aziz Ansari’s image. He created it, wrote it, directed it, and stars in it. Netflix recently released the highly anticipated second season of the show, which was immediately praised as a profound show from a fresh perspective both about everything and nothing. Its fans compare Ansari to Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis C. K.
The shows greatest success is its ambition. Each episode has a unique structure, which lets Ansari and his crew experiment with visual style. They meander through connected vignettes of New Yorkers as they go about their day in the episode “New York, I Love You.” The bookend episodes of the season recreate the effortless style and romance of 1970s Italian films complete with a Ennio Morricone soundtrack and retro cinematography. And then there’s “First Date,” a cleverly devised and relatable look at dating in the digital age.
This creative approach to each episode is the highlight of Master of None.
The Jack of All Trades
I really wanted to like this show. I wanted to relate to his character, Dev, and his problems, many of which I face similar versions in my own life. Yet, for all its success in style and structure, the show is irredeemably shallow. Ansari cannot stop thinking about himself—and insists you do the same. As a result, the show functions like an Instagram page: a filtered, stylized, and curated version of Ansari’s life both as he wishes it should be and how he wishes you to view him.
Ansari tries to tackle timely and ambitious topics but treats each issue with such shallow passivity that all the viewer is left with are vague feelings masquerading as substantial thought.
The most notable example of this is in the bluntly titled episode “Religion,” which takes on the role of religion in the lives of modern Americans. It begins with a montage of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim children complaining about being forced to go to worship services. Ansari wants to address all religions, but fails to get past his own narrow perspective.
Instead of engaging with the topic from any significant angle, Dev simply struggles with his love of bacon, an unclean food for observant Muslims, and ultimately decides that religion is a relic of the past. It’s fun to hang out at bars instead of going to the mosque and bacon is delicious, so how could he be wrong?
The lack of depth doesn’t just plague this one episode—it happens for the entire series. For most of the season, Ansari never gets deeper than the way things look or feel. It amounts to him pretty much giving a shoulder shrug to the issues of the world, more concerned about what he thinks is “cool” than finding answers to his big questions.
And at every major question the show raises, the focus redirects to Dev, a sincere and good guy who is never on the wrong side of a situation.
Dev starts the season in a small Italian city apprenticing as a pasta chef. He has even found a love interest in the beautiful but engaged Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). Despite his humble job, Dev dashes across the countryside for a foodie adventure with a friend from home, dresses himself in smart Italian suits, and maintains a large apartment back home in New York City. Once he returns to New York, Dev immediately lands a lucrative hosting gig on not one, but two successful shows. He can’t help but say the right thing at the right time while meeting the right people, shuffling sideways into parties with John Legend and finding his face on billboards in Times Square.
Despite what seems to be cosmic good luck, the viewer is bludgeoned with the idea that you should feel sorry for him as he mopes around New York. After all, his dream life is punctuated by catastrophe like losing his phone, not being able to date his engaged Italian dream girl, and not finding enough meaning in his success.
A Scripted Dream Life
This is not a new Louis or Annie Hall, which seems to be the intended goal. This is a revisionist history of Aziz Ansari. Ansari scripts Dev’s life after his own (he has said as much in interviews), which blurs the line between autobiography and fiction. The viewer can’t tell where Dev ends and Aziz begins. Ansari’s parents even play themselves in the show for goodness sake! It appears that Dev is Ansari’s amalgamation of wish fulfillment and self-promotion—the character equivalent of a social media profile: relatable, enviable, and completely unbelieveable.
In a sense, Master of None is a perfect millennial show: nostalgic, boldly ambitious, relevant, relatable, and deeply self-conscious while presenting a cool façade. But it is far too focused on the jack of all trades behind the scenes to create any kind of substance around its ambitions.
As a result, the only sympathy Dev elicits is a muttered “Welcome to the club” and a shrug of my shoulders.
Cover image by Adam Birkett.