Thursday, December 10, 2015

Master of None: Reveling in the Awkward

by Melissa Adamo

Master of None, a new series created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, does what most television does not do today—cater to the audience’s preference for binging. Although Master of None is on Netflix, dropping all ten episodes on November 6th, a driving narrative does not propel audiences further. Instead, the show takes more comedic risks, as Ansari explores his new role as a creator, writer, and director of a TV series.

Master of None does use a cast of characters we get to know better throughout the season, and the main character Dev’s questions regarding relationships is an arc throughout.  However, since every episode is themed, it can stand alone. Each tackles various topics as indicated by the flashing titles on the opening screen: “Parents,” “Old People,” or “Indians on TV.” Thus, the show lends itself best to traditional pacing versus the full-on binge, allowing us to mull over dialogue and themes—something our instant gratification culture often avoids today (I might have devoured them all in one day anyway).

Ansari’s latest project almost begs us to sit with awkwardness. One example: treating your date to Plan B. This heartwarming romcom tale is the first scene of the series. We do not get a cute meeting or other context for the two lovers. The story throws us right into an embarrassing sexual encounter that ends in the pharmacy rather than bed—cue every cliché shot of two people heavily breathing, sheets covering privates, hand to forehead as they both whisper, “Wow.”

Obviously, most sitcoms do not have crazy plot twists like a Shondaland drama to keep people watching (how will they get away with murder this week!?), but they do often rely on joke after joke to hook audiences. For example, the network comedies of Mike Schur, co-creator of Parks and Rec and actually one of the executive producers of Master of None, use various types of humor to keep the laughs coming from different viewers, ranging from slapstick to clever word play, covering pop culture as well as political humor. Of course, Master of None is funny, but it might seem surprising that Ansari, a comedian and our beloved Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec, wouldn’t rely on such indulgence.

That confidence is what’s refreshing about Master of None. Episodes don’t feel forced. They do not pander. And this doesn’t take away from their humor. Nothing says funny quite like Dev having to buy all the frozen waffles in a supermarket because the kid he was babysitting put his penis on all of them in a mere minute.

Amid the laughs, some episodes do feel slow and uncomfortable from time to time. The episode “Mornings” takes place almost entirely in Dev’s apartment over a series of months. We watch the relationship between him and girlfriend, Rachel, change after moving in together. We feel every silence post-fight about messy floors. We experience the frustration as they shift from exciting chair sex to rote thrusts in bed. And we can’t help but laugh (or maybe cry) when Dev’s gift to spice things up turns out to be The Liberator, a “firm wedge” or sex pillow as Rachel calls it before swiftly rejecting it. This is the beauty of Ansari’s writing and of a provider like Netflix—they both allow for risk through nuance and realism. Rather than cut to subplots or reach for the easy joke like most network shows, “Mornings” makes us move in with the characters too.

Yet despite my complete admiration for all Ansari’s work, I surprisingly didn’t laugh out loud as much as I thought I would at Master of None (though Dev’s friend Arnold and his love for Paro gets me every time). The lack of lols probably stems from my obsessive knowledge of Ansari’s work. After repeatedly watching his comedy specials, enjoying him live this summer, and reading Modern Romance, I have seen him pick apart most, if not all, of these topics before. Feminism, racism, homophobia—this isn’t new territory for him. But my familiarity never led me away from the series, not even when Netflix asked if I was sure.

Yes, Ansari uses the same concepts and similar lines from his previous material. (Not that this is news: Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld certainly did too.) In Ansari’s special Live at Madison Garden, he analyzes the difference between the treatment of men and women on the Internet. When discussing a possible Tweet about an upcoming show in Phoenix, he suggests, “I might get a mean Tweet where some guy’s like ‘Oh yeah? I’m never coming to Phoenix cause you suck’…but a woman’s mean Tweet would be different… ‘Oh yeah? Instead of going to Phoenix, why don’t you come to Buffalo and suck my dick?”

In the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Ansari and Yang illuminate the same idea with Instagram. Dev’s followers’ comments on his brunch photo of a fluffy frittata remain tame, “yum-town,” while Rachel’s comments on the same photo read, “I wanna fuck your face” (said face wasn’t pictured). Rachel then has to make her account private, fearing future harassment and potential stalker situations. The same episode also showcases a woman from a bar being followed home by a stranger while Dev and Arnold leave the same bar carefree.

Even with these inevitable overlaps, the delivery differs in the show and thus it holds up on its own. Ansari’s stand-up style is vibrant yet repetitive. He typically does the same bit three times in a row to make a point. After setting up the premise of a realistic interaction, he creates a hypothetical ending or poses random questions. In the same bit for the Live special, he continues to say, “No women are harassing me like that…No women are ever writing me stuff…” and proceeds to fill in the blanks with one ridiculous line after the next: from “Suck my pussy, Aziz, suck my pussy, Aziz” to “Finger me, Aziz, finger me, Aziz. Let’s go watch Dirty Dancing on BluRay.”

His style involves being extravagant not only in language but in body movement too; he dances across the full stage, speaks at louder volumes for his characters, jumps in the air to catch an imaginary high five. Dev is not loud or ostentatious. He is no Tom Haverford, no stand-up persona. In fact, Dev even comes off a bit naïve; he continually asks advice and expresses ignorance on issues like feminism or terms like “redbone” in order to not only further dialogue or plot but also to allow for the female/black characters to explain these ideas. Since his tone is more subdued than his louder stand-up persona or wacky side character, Dev becomes more fitting of the straight man leading the show.  

Because of its specific style as well as its diverse cast and topical storylines, Master of None proves to audiences it can evolve past one season. This isn’t always the case with other comedians who transition into TV. I only got through the pilot of John Mulaney’s show (it didn’t get picked up for a second season) because it simply threw his stand-up jokes into a sitcom script, often times word for word. Without remodeling for the new medium, it fell into network sitcom patterns of flat characters and cliché plots. Although not all the scripts of Master of None come off fully polished—some reactions in the dialogue seem a bit forced—and not all the lines are perfectly delivered (his real life parents are cast in the show instead of more experienced actors)—this rawness further illustrates risks taken by Ansari and Yang.

I am excited for a second season of Master of None. And with all the praise the show is receiving, especially in regards to tackling issues of sexism and racism, I’m pretty confident it will get picked up again. I am particularly eager for the show to continue to learn its characters and for Ansari to test out new material. I’m sure a continued exploration of the television format would only garner more positive attention as he continues the shift from stand up to teleplays, especially since for many shows, the first season is never quite as polished. For instance, Parks and Rec didn’t have its own voice in its first season because it sounded like The Office and didn’t really work itself out fully until season three.

While waiting for announcements on season two, I’m fine sitting a bit longer with all those uncomfortable moments in the first ten episodes. From the absurdly dramatic: Dev performing a death scene in a crowded coffee shop to audition for a movie via Skype, to the simply charming: Dev trying to leave an interaction with a coworker: “Well it was great to meet you [pause]. I’m going to eat this cinnamon raisin bagel [silence]. I’ll see you out there [longer pause]… All right,” each scene only furthers my appreciation for Aziz Ansari again and again.

Check out this hot series on Netflix, preferably one day at a time, and revel in awkwardness. “Well. I guess that’s the end of this interaction. [Brief pause.] Bye!”

No comments :

Post a Comment