When I started watching “Master of None,” the Netflix show “Parks and Recreation” alum Aziz Ansari helms, I expected to laugh out loud.
The fact I didn’t most of the time is not a knock on Ansari’s creation. If anything, it’s a tribute to what a strange creature that show is.
Reflecting upon “Master of None,” I remember an insight from one of my recent professors: no words are true synonyms. Words, like people, have histories. Falling out of people’s mouths and pens as they have for centuries, words accumulate implications like dust particles — ever-present, inevitable, invisible without a keen lens. Words carry connotations beyond their denotations. Hence the importance of diction: every word should be a precise choice, lest the writer convey a feeling that does not fit.
“Master of None” is not mirthful, as it rarely conveys or produces merriment. It amuses only sometimes, since it is almost anything but carefree. The show is clearly a comedy, but is not quite comical: the lack of ludicrousness is perhaps the show’s most distinct trait.
Rather, the show’s strangeness makes it somewhat droll. The dialogue and set-ups brim with wit. Both Ansari’s character, Dev, and the show itself mix sardonicism and optimism in equal measure. More than anything, “Master of None” epitomizes the adjective “funny”: clever and curious, waggish and odd, enjoyable and entertaining and difficult to understand.
I rarely laughed out loud while watching “Master of None” because I was too busy trying to understand it. I was, in a word, intrigued. In multiple words, I was fascinated, confused, astonished and a wee bit terrified.
The summaries I read of “Master of None” all pass the same posts: Dev (Ansari), a 30-year-old actor, navigates personal and professional life in New York City. His friends include Arnold (Eric Wareheim), a food-loving “token white friend”; Brian (Kelvin Yu), a Taiwanese-American actor; and Denise (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian. During the first season, Dev falls in love with Rachel (Noël Wells), a music publicist, in typical-atypical out-of-order fashion. Ansari’s parents Shoukath and Fatima have recurring roles as Dev’s parents, H. Jon Benjamin plays an acting colleague of Dev’s, and guest stars such as Colin Salmon and Claire Danes pop up.
But that summary, while sketching the show’s broad structure, only hints at what “Master of None” is really about. With a diverse cast, “Master of None” explores contemporary issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, ageism and gender. In one episode, “Parents,” Dev and Brian aim to learn more about their immigrant parents. In another, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Dev quickly becomes a feminist after learning about the sexism women face everyday. In “Old People,” by spending time with Rachel’s grandmother, Dev discovers how capable the elderly can be.
And there are only ten episodes in the first season.
“Master of None” explores those topics with intelligence, confidence and what seems like personal insight. But that’s not what struck me most about the show. I’d read plenty of reviews before watching “Master of None”; I anticipated those episodes and they discussions they contained. What I did not expect was the frank, realistic portrayal of life as a 20s-30s something in the 2010s.
From Dev’s 45-minute Internet search for the city’s best tacos to the awkward, touching genesis of his relationship with Rachel, “Master of None” portrays life right now. More than any other screen entertainment I’ve watched, Ansari’s show looks like the inside of a crystal ball: a blurry, approximate glimpse of what my life in a few years could look like.
Clear differences exist between Dev and me. I am not male, Indian-American, the child of immigrants or an aspiring actor. However, both Dev and I — and every other character — are not caricatures. We struggle to get jobs, but sometimes we snatch one. Our wages are too low, and costs of college and real estate are too high. We all live in New York City, a land of opportunity and disappointment, department stores and subway grime, celebrities and pervs. Our day-to-day habits involve the Internet and that’s okay, no matter what the more bitter members of preceding generations say.
“Master of None” is grounded in reality. Dev could be any number of people I’ve walked past on Riverside Drive; I could’ve sat next to Rachel on the subway. They are unique, but in the way all individuals are, not like the exaggerated personas milked on TV. Because of the characters’ realness, I do not aspire to emulate them like I do Leslie Knope; Dev and Rachel, although a good couple, do not provide the same “relationship goals” as Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate. Rather, Dev and his friends feel normal — simultaneously average and special; people I know.
Because I am a lost, confused 19-year-old with equal experience in relationships and living independently (read: none), that relatable quality made “Master of None” a virtual class in adulthood. I felt like I learned while I watched. In my friend’s words after I sent her a series of texts about it: “Man, this show is making you use such big words.” It’s true — descriptors I sent her included “socially conscious,” “educational,” “intellectually stimulating” and “revelatory.” And I mean it.
Watching Dev and Rachel’s road to a first date, I learned more about hookup culture than any teen magazine has taught me. Seeing a woman pursued home from a bar by a man she had rejected, I realized how easily that could happen to me — and why the woman, while walking, dialed “9-1.” During the ninth episode, “Mornings,” which documented Dev and Rachel learning to live together, I witnessed big and little fights, good mornings and fraught ones, and sex treated with a frank, compassionate “yeah, duh” attitude.
It was terrifying and enlightening, both foreign and familiar, like adulthood itself often is. In my minimal experience, at least.
Because of that, I did not find “Master of None” laugh-out-loud funny. The show touched too much besides my humor — fears about finding a fulfilling job, insecurities about how to act in relationships, confusion about how anyone can ever call themselves “grown.”
To me, it seems nothing and no one ever grows up. Instead, we’re always growing. I am; “Master of None” is, too. The times Dev and his friends made me chuckle fell in the latter episodes, not the earlier ones, which seems appropriate. After all, part of adulthood is learning we don’t always know what we’re doing. We learn to laugh about it along the way.