He was arguably the funniest character on Parks and Recreation. In films, he co-starred in the criminally underrated 30 Minutes or Less and delivered hilarious cameos in Seth Rogen’s best comedies: Observe and Report and This Is the End. Plus, his stand-up is dope, yo!
Now, Aziz Ansari hits Netflix, streaming season 1 of Master of None (which quickly got a season 2 green light). Created by Ansari and Parks writer Alan Yang, the New York-set, 10-episode series is loosely based on Ansari and Yang — here represented by the surrogate character Brian Cheng, played by Kelvin Yu.
Ansari plays Dev, an Italian food-obsessed, first-generation East Indian-American aspiring actor best known for a Go-Gurt commercial. He and Taiwanese-American bud Brian are the sometimes-spoiled, Americanized fruit of their immigrant parents’ loins. The Seinfeld-ian clique is rounded out by tall, white doofus Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and seen-it-all African-American lesbian Denise (Lena Waithe). Dev also, in awkward starts and fits, begins seeing music PR agent Rachel (Noël Wells).
In episode 6, Rachel notifies Dev that she’s broken up with her boyfriend, triggering Dev to impress her with a memorable first date by taking her to Nashville for the weekend, with the understanding that Rachel must return to NYC on Sunday to catch her niece’s recital. The stunt nearly works: An innocent, romantic, sex-free weekend . . . undone by Dev’s self-indulgent detour to a restaurant for a bottle of delicious barbecue sauce. They miss their flight and Rachel misses the recital, inspiring the new couple’s first argument.
Indeed, “Nashville” signals a turning point for both Dev’s personal life and the series. As the focus turns to the deepening Dev-Rachel relationship, so evaporates some comedic edge as Master traffics more in mush than mirth. “Finale,” directed by Wareheim, shakes the couple’s confidence. As a result of Dev’s over-sharing, Rachel takes his words to heart, abandoning her New York life to chase an untapped dream in Tokyo. The season ends with Dev also questioning his life by purchasing a plane ticket: to Italy, to enroll in culinary school.
Ansari’s real-life (non-actor) mom and dad add unpolished authenticity to their roles as Dev’s parents. Yu shines as the borderline vacuous Brian. Wareheim’s goofball Arnold offers much of the show’s ostensible comic relief while Waithe’s Denise provides the subterranean laughs, whether she’s defending paying to see the awful rom-com Failure to Launch (Sarah Jessica Parker is bae!) or nonchalantly illustrating how she’ll seduce her lesbian-curious straight supervisor.
The series’ real revelation, however, is Wells, who fully realizes Rachel as a mix of humorousness, seriousness, vulnerability and strength. When Rachel rises to the occasion, as when she slams the director of The Sickening to his face after he cuts Dev out without telling him, it’s hard not to fall in love with her, too.
Built on the comedic strength of its first five episodes, Master of None coasts on much goodwill on its last five. Never as mercenary or self-absorbed as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm nor as vulgar as Eastbound & Down or as dramatically bleak as Louie, Master of None shares traits with all these great comedies while offering an excellent, multi-cultural (for once!) cast. Any opportunity to see Ansari in a comedy this smart and organic can’t be resisted.
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.