Saturday, December 12, 2015

Master of Some

Aziz Ansanri has never been "my" kind of comedian. Despite him being pretty much exactly the same age as me, I think of him as belonging to the 20-something set, maybe because his jokes are in the "modern foibles" category of comedy: lots of raised eyebrows at relationships, texting etiquette, and what-does-it-all-mean personal identity questions that dog most of through our formative years (and, in my case, waaaay beyond).

In what is probably his most famous role, Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec, Ansari played the archetype of a self-proclaimed big fish in a small pond. He was especially adept at playing the businessman-dreamer, which only really works when you're in a tiny town and you think your insane ideas are viable business options because you haven't seen the inevitable New York City iteration hit the skids.

Ansari is funny and personable, both as Tom and in his stand-up persona. His Wikipedia page proclaims that he's a feminist, which, in an age where male comedians constantly interrogate female comedians, and women generally, on their ability to perceive unfunny boys'-club "jokes" as anything other than subtle violence, is a relief. He's been on critically acclaimed shows, like Flight of the Conchords way back in '07, and done voice work for Adventure Time and the Venture Brothers. He was on Scrubs, acting as a bridge between the JD years and the terrible, best-to-be-ignored intern-centric reboot. He's made good choices!

Last month, he launched Master of None on Netlfix. He plays Dev, who's sort of like Hannah Horvath's to Ansari's Lena Dunham: Dev seems like a lightly fictionalized version of Ansari. Dev's single, a foodie, an emerging actor with a few commercials and a role in a terrible action movie under his belt. Ansari cast his real-life parents as Dev's parents, further blurring the line between reality and fiction (and, despite his mother's total inability to not look at the camera, their scenes are hella charming). Dev often speaks in the sing-song cadence that Aziz adopts in his stand-up sets, and has the same interest in surface/sparkle/shine that he embodied with Tom Haverford.

For the most part, I liked Master of None. It forefronted some interesting questions around race, in big ways (why don't we see more minorities in the media?) and in smaller ones (the "black virus" movie). It was especially smart around its treatment of second-generation immigrants—the kids whose parents might be intimately familiar with how to kill a chicken, but for whom chicken comes in nugget form only.

And yet, I can't love it unreservedly. It falls for a couple stupid sitcom storylines—kids will ruin your life, dummy! your relationships are doomed for failure!—and, despite their racial diversity, Dev's friends aren't actually characters we haven't seen before. The dialog feels stilted sometimes, as though the actors are reciting lines written by fourth graders.

We are in an age of comedian auteurs. People who started in stand-up or in other people's writer's rooms are now producing and starring in their own shows. With Louie or The Mindy Project or Master of None, we see autobiographical details bump up against the fantasy world of television. Someone, and I can't remember who, wrote that Louie is what happens when you actually dramatize the hyperbole that makes stand-up sets so funny; likewise, The Mindy Project is best understood as a rom-com, with all the meet-cutes and false barriers and redemption arcs that genre embraces. If I had to guess, I would say that Master of None works on upending our expectations of race and relationships? Or maybe it's about Millennials? Or...something else?

I can't quite put my finger on why I don't fully connect with Master of None. At first I thought it was because I am now an old grumpy pregnant married person, and this show is about being Young, Hot, and Fun™, but I watch plenty of shows that aren't directly about who I am in this current moment. But Master of None is so much about surfaces that it can be a little distracting. 

The best moments on the show are when he decides to dig a little deeper—ask his parents about their immigrant experience, instead of keeping them at arm's length, or actually care about the experience of the women he works with, instead of assuming he already knows what their lives are like—but there are also so many moments when he focuses on the outward appearance of his life. He wants a relationship that's 100% perfect at all times; he wants the cleanest apartment; he wants the nattiest outfit. The idea that perfection and surface sheen are desirable, let alone achievable and maintainable, is barely examined. His sing-song cadence reinforces the notion that life is a thing to be performed rather than lived, and it's only in the last episode that we start seeing actions that challenge that, and there's precious little emotional work to go along with these changes. 

Master of None is a good show—not a great show, but a good one—and watching it was a pleasure. Ansari raises interesting questions, and answers some of them adeptly. But still: I just wish there had been more there there, you know?