In Aziz Ansari's new Netflix comedy “Master of None,” the “Parks and Recreation” alum plays an actor named Dev, his real parents play Dev's parents, there's a running subplot where he takes a supporting role in a “black virus movie” called “The Sickening,” and there are cameo opportunities for everyone from Claire Danes to Busta Rhymes.
With that description, it would be safe to assume “Master of None” would be another showbiz navel-gazer, made by people – Ansari co-created the series with fellow “Parks and Rec” alum Alan Yang – only capable of, or interested in, writing about the world that's immediately around them.
But what makes “Master of None” so special – and instantly not only one of Netflix's best series, but one of the best shows on TV – is that it's the thematic opposite of that. What defines Dev isn't that he spends a lot of time on movie sets, and gets to hang out with Busta Rhymes at a Knicks game, but that he keeps reminding himself to be curious about people and things well outside of his comfort zone.
As a female friend puts it, after he stands up for the actresses appearing with him in a home improvement store commercial, “It's just really nice that you tried to see it from our perspective.”
The 10-episode first season, which premieres on Friday, takes advantage of the Netflix binge format to tell a compelling, complicated, enormously appealing romantic story involving Dev and music publicist Rachel (Noel Wells), a couple we meet mid-coitus in the series' opening scene, as Dev panics when the condom breaks. But where some streaming shows are starting to abandon the idea of episodic television altogether, and treating their seasons as very long movies, “Master of None” neatly toggles back and forth between the slow build of Dev and Rachel's relationship, and standalone episodes where Dev attempts to put himself in someone else's shoes for a quick walk around the neighborhood.
In the second episode, for instance, the pampered, whiny lives of Dev and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) are put into sharp, hilarious contrast with flashbacks to their fathers' upbringings in India and Taiwan. Realizing that he may have sold the old man (played amusingly, if not always naturally, by Shoukath Ansari, who by day works as an internist) short by focusing on his own needs, Dev suggests they bring their parents together for a meal where they can hear stories about the old countries. It's sweet, it's thoughtful, and it has a lot of fun at the expense of its hero, even as he's trying to do the right thing.
In other installments, Dev and the show explore what it might be like to have kids, whether it's a bad thing to have sex with a married woman (Danes, shot through with electricity at a rare opportunity to play comedy) if her husband (Noah Emmerich, ditto) is awful, why men and women have such different experiences at bars, why it's so hard to cast two Indian actors in the same TV show (the most showbiz-y of the episodes, but on a little-covered topic), and more. In the wonderful eighth episode, Dev accompanies Rachel to visit her grandmother Carol (Lynn Cohen), who laments the passage of time and the feeling of abandonment when you wind up in a retirement home, but who winds up taking Dev out for an amazing night on the town and regales him with a story illustrating that life wasn't any less complicated back in the day, but just different.
This is essentially Ansari and Yang's version of “Louie”(*) – where many of the best episodes also involve Louis C.K. simply showing curiosity about a part of life he doesn't already know – but because it's filtered through their sensibilities (and relative youth), it's more optimistic about both the world and what might lie ahead for its hero. Dev's not much of an actor – as he explains to one of his father's friends, he fell into it when a casting director spotted him in the park one day – and he's not even sure if he and Rachel are meant to be together forever. But Ansari has a sunnier personality – in the adultery episode (which takes place before he and Rachel are a couple), he has his familiar delighted smile plastered across his face, and announces, “This is so cool! This is awesome! I like all of this!” as Danes throws herself at him – that leavens some of that angst without cheapening it. Dev's no saint – in one episode based on a story by the late Harris Wittels, he defends the idea of tossing aside a concert date for someone more desirable by insisting, “We can be shitty to people now, and it's accepted! It's one of the great things about being alive today!” – but he also understands himself and recognizes that he needs to know and do more, even as it's much easier to go back to playing with his phone.
(*) The aesthetic and tone are also very similar to late '70s Woody Allen (also a huge influence on Louis C.K.).
Ansari directed several episodes, and most of the rest are handled by Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric, who also has a fun supporting role as Dev's friend Arnold. The image of two men of such different sizes hanging out is enough of a joke that the show almost doesn't need to do anything else with them, but they have a lot of bouncy verbal interplay as well, like an argument over whether “Lose Yourself” is meant to be told from the perspective of Eminem or the character he played in “Eight Mile.” Though the focus is always on either Dev alone or Dev with Rachel, the series manages to set up some clear dynamics among Dev's circle of friends, which also includes Lena Waithe as Denice, a lesbian who's happy to save Dev from his most self-destructive relationship impulses.
And the Dev/Rachel story is so smartly developed, with such strong chemistry between Ansari and Wells (who, true to the series' ethos, gets to be her own person, rather than just an object of desire for the guy), that the episodes focusing on it could be spliced together into an incredibly satisfying film about two people who like and maybe even love each other a lot, but who aren't sure if they're staying together only because they met at the time in their lives when they're supposed to be settling down. The season's penultimate episode covers nearly a year of their relationship, and it's emotionally complicated without being oppressive, in a way that only makes the occasional moments of genuine romance feel all the more powerful.
This is a great show, which you might expect given the number of “Parks” veterans involved (including Mike Schur in a godfather capacity as one of the executive producers), but which still feels surprising given the show's clever structure and eagerness to embrace other perspectives. So many of the best shows of the modern era involve characters (whether in showbiz or not) who are pathologically incapable of understanding or even imagining a worldview other than their own. But as thrilling as it can be to watch a series with that kind of commitment and focus, Ansari and Yang show just how much excitement, laughter, and pathos can come from watching a man learn to think about others first.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org