Behind the laughter: purposeful themes propel Netflix’s newest comedy

Prior to watching Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series Master of None, I had the chance to read his recently released book Modern Romance. Although it features funny anecdotes and sarcastic tangents of various kinds, the book is above all a highly academic piece of work. Rather than just spewing out his own thoughts about the subject onto the page, Ansari teamed up with highly regarded sociologist Eric Klinenberg and conducted over a year’s worth of comprehensive studies on the various aspects of romance as they pertain to our modern world.

The project was a pretty odd choice for someone in Ansari’s position. He’s a 32-year-old comedian in the prime of his career. Why the hell is he immersing himself in academia when he should be trying to land a sweet role in Zoolander 2 or something? Ansari actually tackles that very question in the introduction to Modern Romance. Lots of comedians are approached about book deals after they become famous, Ansari explains, but he knew he wouldn’t ever be interested in writing one unless the premise totally gripped him and felt worthwhile—which is exactly what happened when he started contemplating how modernity has reshaped our romantic ideals and expectations.

So it’s no surprise really that the best part about Master of None’s outstanding debut season is the way in which each episode fleshes out a meaningful central idea that pertains to life in our modern world. There’s an overarching plot that the season is built around—Ansari plays an actor named Dev who’s doing his best to navigate life in New York City with three close friends, he enters into a relationship, etc.—but the individual episodes take a very spontaneous approach in advancing it. Most of the time, Ansari and co-creator/writer Alan Yang are just using the show as a vehicle to examine a carefully selected topic and giving us some laughs while they’re at it. Kind of like a dramatized version of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that, in addition to taking on the big societal issues, also saves room for more informal subject matter.

That’s how we end up getting an exceptional piece of television like the show’s second episode, “Parents,” which explores the contrasting lives of first-generation Americans and their immigrant parents. The episode’s opening scene shows Dev and his friend Brian (who is of Asian descent and played by Kelvin Yu) trying to shrug off requests for small favours from their dads (Ansari’s is played by his real dad!) and get out of the house in time for the trailers at the movies. Meanwhile, viewers get a glimpse inside the dads’ heads as they think back to the struggles they had in their youth and the sacrifices they made so that their children could have a better life in America. It makes for a powerful juxtaposition, one that hits home for people in Dev and Brian’s situation and gives others some valuable perspective.

For me, it was the moment that I fully bought into Master of None. Although I ended up loving Season 1, I was let down by the series premiere “Plan B.” It grapples with an interesting topic (whether to settle down and have kids when you still have some youthful years left) but overextends itself in trying to set up humourous situations in place of more realistic ones. That all changes in the first five minutes of “Parents,” which tap into something significant and show why Master of None’s calling card is its commitment to purposeful, accurate representation of a theme, not its ability to make jokes out of random things that stem from it—though it doesn’t hurt when we get some of those too.

One thing that’s refreshing to see in Master of None is the notable thematic emphasis it places on equity. Unlike South Park, which has spent the past season satirizing how some people have reached a ridiculous level of political correctness, Ansari and Yang have turned their attention to the everyday realities that still don’t get addressed nearly enough. “Indians on TV” takes us through the challenge of finding good acting opportunities when you have an Indian background. “Ladies and Gentlemen” illustrates how women deal with various acts of sexism all the time. Master of None gives us honest portrayals of these issues and they should certainly resonate with viewers.

Ansari also puts much of the research from Modern Romance to good use in Master of None. Dev and his core group of friends—which consists of Brian, Denise (a black lesbian played by Lena Waithe), and Arnold (a burly Caucasian guy played by Eric Wareheim)—all start off as single 30-somethings who like to meet up and discuss their romantic prospects and exploits. The latter part of the season centres on Dev’s relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells), which offers up plenty of rich contemplative material, but before that, we get to watch him face all the common trials of trying to find love in the modern world, and even some uncommon ones (*cough* adultery *cough*). When Dev spends some one-on-one time with Rachel’s grandmother, many of his findings on the differences between relationships in the past and present come to light—as does the fact that she’s a total badass, which makes for a pretty entertaining episode.

Minus the slow start out of the gate, entertaining episodes—not to mention thoughtful and hilarious ones—were the norm in Master of None. The underrepresentation and stereotyping of Indians on TV sucks, but at least we can celebrate the fact that Aziz Ansari is a television success story.


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