Aziz Ansari’s new TV series ‘Master of None’
If you want to send a message, call Western Union. This advice, sometimes attributed to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, was once routinely given to American screenwriters whose work was deemed too political or preachy. Now, producers are far less likely to offer such guidance, and not just because nearly a decade has passed since Western Union despatched its final telegram. Twenty-first century audiences are increasingly receptive to a “message”. Especially on TV.
Goldwyn, famous for his impatience with intellectual cinema, would not feel entirely out of place in the multiplexes of the present. We go to the movies for dazzling visualisation. But we watch TV for the more dazzling “messages” the medium is currently able to deliver. A program such as Breaking Bad offers us an account of drug markets more complex, social and thoughtful than Steven Soderbergh’s movie Traffic. Girls gives us a more legitimately unfinished portrait of young white boho womanhood than the moralising train wreck Trainwreck.
If you want to send a message, the advice now proceeds, call Netflix. We can be very glad that comedian Aziz Ansari did and recently delivered the acclaimed dramedy Master of None.
Ansari, co-writer and star of the new series, is best known to television audiences for his recurring role on Parks and Recreation. In other hands, the role of Tom Haverford, a dully ambitious and cocky bureaucrat, could have been pulverised to slapstick pathos. But Ansari sculpted this galling Vin Diesel fan into shape. To give the master artist her due, Parks producer and star Amy Poehler cast Ansari after honing his abilities in her Upright Citizens Brigade theatre project, from which the marvellous Broad City was also forged. When Maestra Poehler, who is arguably even better at recognising comic talent than she is at writing gags, first caught his act, she was immediately impressed. “This kid is filling the seats on Tuesday at midnight.”
As a stand-up, Ansari is now filling venues of a size that otherwise accommodate only sports events and Christian revival meetings. It’s a rare comic who can maintain the sense of intimacy and vulnerability necessary to a laugh under such bright lights, but he manages.
Such success is, of course, always largely due to dumb luck. Ansari happened to be born with unusual talent and happened to be socially formed with unusual suitability to the present era. But he also happens to be unusually industrious, and it’s not just dumb luck but hard work that has turned him into a telegram.
To watch Master of None is to enjoy a comic message itself often already read and understood by its creator. An alum of NYU’s Stern, Ansari is yet to break his study habit. They must teach ’em some sociology there at business school, because so many scenes are governed by a good and a fairly scholarly grasp of modern interactions.
Ansari, whose recent best-selling book on modern romance, Modern Romance, was co-written with the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, doesn’t try to hide his learning. He has confessed in a radio interview that Barry Schwartz, author of 2004 pop sociology The Paradox of Choice, has been extraordinarily influential in his writing.
In a Master of None scene between Ansari’s protagonist Dev and his pal Arnold – played with lumbering charm by Tim and Eric’s Eric Wareheim and described in press by Ansari as “our token white guy” – you can find this erudition. Dev is hungry. He decides that his hunger can only be sated by New York City’s best taco. He consults a dozen apps while Arnold grows weak in this quest for excellence. By the time Dev has geolocated the best tortilla with the most artisanal fillings, the store is closed. “What am I supposed to do now?” he moans. “Eat the second-best taco?” He can barely summon the life force to eat at all.
The paralysis of disappointment is, says Schwartz, the inevitable byproduct of consumer choice. There is not, and there can never be, a “best” commodity – and that we begin to form our social relationships around the belief there can be creates a great feeling of alienation. Nothing is ever the best.
This hopeless hopefulness – there’s always something better around the corner – not only makes commodities mystical, it mystically turns everything into a commodity. Including Dev’s relationship with Rachel, played by Noël Wells, formerly of Saturday Night Live. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in this very good show, but I will say that this is some of the funniest diluted Marxist thinking about the social world I have seen on the popular screen. Take that, Samuel Goldwyn. Ansari has sent a message. And it comes from the first book of Capital.
If you’re thinking, even for a moment, that this show, written from some fairly earnest scholarship, is the sort of thing you can’t binge watch with a second- or third-best taco in your tummy and a paralysing selection of beer, you’d be wrong. From many accounts, Master of None can be enjoyed by kids who just fancy a laugh at their own smartphone overuse or, for the MA15+ crowd, at anxiety at the fiction of enjoying regularly “mind-blowing” orgasms. Whatever one’s age, Ansari’s “message” comedy will deliver.
The great cleverness of this show is its commitment to disappointment. Ansari, so enamoured of the idea that we live a life with its ideal version always and necessarily out of reach, is not an “empowering” comic, such as that other young force of stand-up, Amy Schumer, has so newly become. Ever since Schumer started the intrinsically non-comic work of improving the world, she has become less funny and less insightful. Schumer, whose newest HBO special is a largely unfunny squawk about how hard it is to get great roles in Hollywood as a typically sized woman, is fuelled by the belief that simply asserting herself will change the future. Ansari, who does take on a similar theme in one episode where the fact of his Indian American ethnicity is a barrier to media work, doesn’t think he can change the future. Instead, he prefers to describe the present.
Schumer considers herself a trailblazer. Ansari positions himself more as a map-maker. Perhaps it is this radically un-American perspective that sees the individual as a product of society – rather than the individual as a powerful producer of society, as Schumer would have it – that makes Ansari’s show so broadly compelling.
This is not to suggest that Ansari is a humble man from the Global South; he is, in fact, a beguilingly confident man from South Carolina whose ideas were taken from the world and polished in New York. It is, however, to suggest that his relative lack of interest in individual excellence and his very great interest in our collective mediocrity makes his message much more interesting to receive than most.
Ansari knows he can’t change the world. But he also knows he has the means to describe a small part of it well. In his toolkit is co-writer Alan Yang, former Parks exec, some very capable actors – including Claire Danes, who is creditably funny in the clothes of a cougar and out of the straitjacket of Homeland – and, notably, Ansari’s parents in the role of parents.
Shoukath and Fatima Ansari have lately been greeted, and not unduly, as the Frank and Estelle Costanza of our era. They’re less unpleasant than the Seinfeld parents, but they’re almost as good, and as frustrating, as Larry David’s creation. That these real-life parents, who happen to have no acting experience, are able to play unflattering versions of themselves in their son’s avowedly autobiographical work is not just a fun detail that provides a little PR authenticity; it’s also a great hint about the sort of conditions in which such an interesting comic was raised. This was clearly a home whose inhabitants subjected themselves to informal group therapy much of the time. These are people who know themselves and each other very well.
And this is a critical project. To “know thyself” is not just an instruction for Delphic philosophers. It’s really great advice for comedians as well. When you have traced your own contours a thousand times, you can begin to draw a better picture of the world beyond you. All good comedy starts with an act of utter self-absorption. All potentially great comedy is ended with a “message” that resonates beyond this.
In violation of old tradition, Ansari has sent a message. In violation of emerging traditions, he does more than simply scribble a description of himself upon the culture. He is the “minority” act that seizes the privilege of “majority” comedians and talks about whatever he damn well pleases. Even, and especially, if that topic is bigger than him. That he does so variously in the anxious tones of a Yelp-addicted manboy, or at the pitch of a good son or a bad boyfriend, makes this show such a comprehensive pleasure. Watch it. Welcome the message. And be sure that you’re probably watching the best taco on telly right now.
MULTIMEDIA Big West Festival
Various venues, Footscray, until November 28
VISUAL ART The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8)
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until April 10, 2016
PHOTOGRAPHY Graham Miller
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until February 28, 2016
SCULPTURE The Art of the Brick: DC Comics
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, until May 1, 2016
Carriageworks, Sydney, November 25-28
Sydney Opera House, until November 22
POP CULTURE Doctor Who Festival
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, November 21-22
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "Master class". Subscribe here.