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Review: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None

Aziz Ansari, like many before him, has taken to Netflix as the platform for an intriguing series that allows him to explore television in a new way—with the added bite at pushing at how the United States handles and expresses race on TV. Master of None, which hit the deck last Friday, isn’t conventional television, and it’s not even conventional Netflix, either, which makes it dynamic, interesting, engaging, and, perhaps, the wave of a futuristic narrative and mode of storytelling. Ansari’s look at television through the online platform points also at growing opportunities for talent and creators from marginalised backgrounds who have difficulty being heard on conventional media.

Master of None is, ostensibly, a love story, about dating and navigating the complicated transition between casually dating in your 20s and starting to ask serious questions about where you want your life to do in your 30s. That’s not really what it’s about, though. In ten episodes each designed to stand alone while tying together with a common theme—they can be watched out of order, in order, at random—the series explores the larger identity of people living in the United States, while also challenging the way we talk about it.

Shows about identity politics on broadcast television tend to follow the likes of Girls, which depicts a rather majority, familiar experience while attempting to cast itself as edgy. There’s very little diversion from the monotonous, the mundane, the familiar. The viewer encounters nothing different from her own experiences. On Master of None and other programming like it, that’s very explicitly changing. Ansari is filming a programme about the Indian-American immigrant experience, about what it’s like to be a man of colour in the US, even about what it’s like to be a man of colour in theatre and television, as the main character is an aspiring actor.

In some ways, the show is very autobiographical, and thus it falls out along some familiar lines in Hollywood’s identity-based vehicles. Ansari’s character has moved to New York to pursue his acting dreams, he feels unfulfilled and underappreciated, he gets by on the residuals from commercials and knows that there’s something more waiting around the corner for him, if only he knew what it was. But this is where things start to split apart from the conventional narrative of such programming.

Ansari is a brilliant comedian, and he’s a firecracker on screen, but not so in Master of None, where his greater range is on display. Inside of hiding emotional complexity and the realities of life as an Indian-American behind a barricade of comedy, he lets himself show his true colours, and he also consciously confronts audiences who are used to seeing men like him used as figures of comedy. Like other people of colour, Ansari is expected to perform in a sort of minstrel show for viewers, and he consciously rejects that. He doesn’t want to be a comic cab driver or funny convenience store owner, and he has a serious conversation with another character about these stereotypes, about how he doesn’t want to play him—but, the other man points out, sometimes you need to compromise to survive in a world that doesn’t hand out money for sticking to principles.

The critically acclaimed second episode, which juxtaposes his frustrations with his parents’ failure to grasp technologies and niceties of life in the United States with their experiences in India and their sacrifices for their son, reads as slightly moralistic and heavyhanded, but it’s still a point well-taken. At this point, many socially conscious viewers may feel as though they’ve been exposed to this aspect of the immigrant experience over and over again, and some may be tiring of seeing it, but Master of None isn’t necessarily for them. What feels to white, dominant audiences like an ad nauseum narrative actually doesn’t appear very often, and for viewers who very rarely see themselves mirrored on television, it can strike a chord, echoing their own lives in a programme that aims to authentically depict at least one aspect of the highly myriad US experience.

What makes Master of None striking is that while all audiences can watch it, they can also read different things into it. For white audiences, it disrupts the customary narrative of Indian men and Indian-American families in entertainment, asking why such roles are so limited in breadth and depth. For audiences of colour, especially Indian-American audiences, it’s a dynamic shift with constant nods to cultural experience—a programme that simultaneously makes itself accessible through universal experiences like one night stands gone horribly wrong while also making itself nuanced and illustrating how different lived experiences have a marked influence on interacting with these events.

Master of None is joining the growing body of work on streaming platforms that may have reached the point of exploring life and culture in a way that broadcast television can’t, and won’t dare do because it fears such programming is too niche. There’s in fact nothing at all niche about a man navigating the world and figuring out who he wants to be, but the appearance of people of colour in lead roles frightens networks and makes them believe it could never be a mainstream success.

Hopefully it will, along with other programming of its ilk, prove networks wrong and force them to have a serious conversation about their priorities and what makes it onto the schedule. Audiences, too, have a burden here, both to view and talk up shows like Master of None and to pressure networks to demand more like them. Surely one or two could be snuck in between hundreds of procedural dramas.