Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang want to tell a relatable story with Master Of None but they clearly see one of the truths of this cluttered moment: You need more than a clever script and a great cast to stay on people’s minds when you’re not in their face.
Ansari’s friend Kanye West has embraced a variation of this. That’s why his music is maybe the third or fourth thing you consider when you think about him. And none of us can go too long without thinking about Yeezy. There’s the maximum-clickbait marriage to Kim Kardashian, the sometimes odd and sometimes bold statements, the shoe line, the live show, and the ceaseless ambition. Ansari cribs that last part. His method is quieter and more down-to-earth than West’s, but the scope of his and Yang’s creative vision is equally broad (and impressive), even if it’s all focused within the world of this one creation and something of a trojan horse for a deeper message.
Master of None isn’t just a TV show, it’s an impeccably curated moving art exhibition. The clothes — stylish without pretension — give off a retro vibe without succumbing to ’80s-dad hipsterism and the soundtrack effortlessly blends the familiar and forgotten with the fresh and obscure. New York City, which serves as the show’s main backdrop, glows at night while city days feel crisp and maybe a little antiseptic — like the real thing — as taco trucks, mellow lounges, rooftop bars, and the backrooms of five-star restaurants are framed with equal awe. Oh yeah, and it’s also an endearing and funny portrait of one man’s sometimes misguided (but always true) hunt for love and a show that happens to speak intelligently about important cultural issues while promoting a diverse cast and the allure of romantic ideals. Jack of all trades, master of… kinda sorta all of them. Especially in season two. But there’s one area in which some feel Master Of None consistently fails.
Ansari’s character, Dev, is a struggling actor who, of course, lives in a tastefully appointed and sizable apartment. Such is the way of television. But he also wears the aforementioned sharp attire, eats at the previously noted culinary hot spots, and has the ability to take a whim-trip to Nashville or temporarily relocate to Italy for a few months so that he can become an expert pasta maker. In general, Dev lives a pretty kickass life that is enhanced by an abundance of free time and untold (and unexplained) cash reserves. If you followed him on Instagram, you’d hate-like every single post.
In season one, Dev’s enviable lifestyle took me out of the show at times. It felt so separate and apart from the reality that I’ve always known. Dev and I are virtually the same age (he’s 33, I’m 34). We’re both creative types who love pasta. And yet, I shop the clearance rack at the big and tall store (again, I really love pasta) and experience my tours of Italy at Olive Garden. Nonetheless, I went into season two with a desire to ignore the disconnect between Dev’s adventures and what they would cost in real life.
Credit where credit is due: Ansari recognized the minor “It’s great, but…” criticism that came up in response to season one and made a slight adjustment, promoting Dev from (mostly) unemployed actor to gainfully employed competition cupcake show host on a Food Network stand-in. The execution is so convenient — Dev’s agent happens to have a dream job for him that allows him to skip a few rungs of the fame ladder when he comes back from Italy — that I expected Ansari to break the fourth wall with a wink and a smile. The move still counts as a course correction, yet it’s a needless one to me, because I no longer care about how Dev pays for his dope blazers and his Vespa rentals.
There’s value in stories that capture a more authentic (and cash-strapped) kind of New York existence where characters live in a friend’s crawlspace, fill their time working as a waiter or clerk to supplement a non-active acting career, and take dates out for a greasy slice of pizza and a walk in the park. Particularly in love stories. The takeaway from Master Of None shouldn’t be that you have to maintain Dev’s polished lifestyle to find love — this is just a different kind of story. Not exactly a fairy tale. More like a semi-attainable fantasy, much like the movie-style love stories that we’ve all been conditioned to pursue.
Dev’s lifestyle is a device that, smartly courts media buzz that enhances the show’s cultural reach while making it feel more unique (in a crowded field that includes more financially realistic shows like Love, You’re The Worst, Fleabag, and the like). It also offers Ansari and Yang a pathway to making a subtle but important observation about modern life.
Social media allows us all to build up our individual lives via crowdsourcing. Access to information by way of opinion from self-proclaimed tastemakers and influencers — the hot song, the right look, the best food, and the must-visit travel spots — are instantly accessible if you know where to look and have the means to chase down that life. But there is a danger in following those trends too closely without evaluating what works for you and your life (as our Steve Bramucci pointed out following the Fyre Festival debacle). It opens the door to a potential loss of individuality, flexibility, and perspective.
Like so many people (including myself), Dev is comforted by his stuff and his experiences — those things he can control — but he’s also weighed down by his inability to find that random, messy, hard-to-come-by, perfect kind of love and his fear that he’ll wind up with something less than.
That angst is on display through most of the show’s two seasons, but the problem with perfection questing is on full display when Dev’s effort to find a taco joint consumes him in the season one finale. Dev wastes precious time in search of the absolute best place online only to miss out on the food before exclaiming, “What am I supposed to do now, go eat the second best taco like some asshole?”
That scene is, of course, a metaphor for Dev’s search for a mate. But it also demonstrates that composing a life exclusively from other people’s samples and obsessing over perfection in what you like, do, and pursue is a bullsh*t gambit that distracts us all from our true identity and the truest rewards. I look at Dev’s escape to Italy in search of a grander truth as further confirmation of that intention.
Season two Dev is changed by Italy. He seeks a relationship, but he’s not trying as hard when he returns.
In season one, crafting the perfect text response to a prospective date was a high priority. In season two, his dating app response is stock and his dates are restricted to a few comfortable locations. Dev isn’t packaging himself, he’s being real and waiting for that to appeal to someone. And when he thinks he’s found that, he doesn’t try to impress so much as he tries to excite and indulge.
After watching season two of Master Of None, I’m increasingly suspicious that Ansari and Yang are trying to deliver a material-aided commentary on the low value of actual materialism and trend-chasing when compared to the impact of finding love. It’s aspirational, but not toward the glamour of finer things. Again, Ansari and Yang see the truth of this cluttered moment, where we’re more connected and arranged, and yet still adrift from each other and awkward in how we try to remedy that. They’re proud aestheticians, but more than anything, they’re romantics that recognize the deep need to hang grand gestures and a sprint away from Dev’s comfort zone as the ideal landing spot for their story and this character. And they couldn’t get there if the show was more grounded by economic realities and unable to create a comfortable life for Dev to burst out of in pursuit of a more authentic existence.