Warning: This piece is spoiler-full.
“You realize fun is a new thing, right? Fun is a luxury only your generation really has,” Dev’s father told him.
Last Friday, Netflix debuted its latest original series, Master of None, starring and created by Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari. Following Ansari’s Dev, a late 20s commercial actor living in New York, the 10 episode, half hour show brings us a different social issue to focus on in each episode. Through a deeply personal lens of Ansari, it’s perhaps the most culturally aware show I’ve ever seen; presumably a follow-up from his book Modern Romance. In its commencement, it introduces Rachel, Dev’s future girlfriend, by delving into the social norms of one night stand Uber-ing to get the Plan B pill, and then the expectations vs reality of parenting.
It follows the lead of FX’s Louie as a semi-autobiographical dark comedy; a format that, benefiting from artistic flexibility, sometimes feels truer than nonfiction. Aziz even brings his own parents to play his fictionalized parents, giving his family unmatched television sincerity. For me, the first show-defining and tear-producing moment was a poignant montage of Aziz’s father’s childhood struggles in India juxtaposed with a heartbreaking display of Dev’s privilege and inconsideration. Mirroring Louie, it feels like an entirely different genre unique to this golden age of television. Using vignettes and skips in time, the show creates a contiguous message. Moments in each episode are laugh out loud funny, but more often it just kept me amused and emotionally invested in the characters.
Reels of shallow Indian stereotypes, including Apu in The Simpsons (voiced by a white guy named Hank), Ashton Kutcher with brown-face in a Pop Chips commercial, and all the accented cab drivers and IT guys of Hollywood are displayed in an opening credit montage. This episode thoroughly critiques race in American media, with an executive stating the culture: if there were two or more Indian Americans on a show, it’d be ‘The Indian Show”, entirely unrelatable to the public. Meanwhile, black and gay people can have two, but not three characters. Master of None is quite powerful and profound in addressing issues without feeling preachy. I’ve loosely known about the depiction of Indian people in media, but it’s gone under my radar of thought due to a complete lack of experience to cultivate my worldview. As Polygon’s Samit Sarkar describes, “Master of None gives everyone a good shake”.
The unawareness of subtle sexism and impossibility for men to truly empathize with being a woman is brilliantly portrayed when Dev is shocked by his female peers’ experiences, and unconsciously defends a man that skipped over the women while introducing himself to everyone at their bar table. “If you’re born with a vagina, everybody knows, creepy dudes are just a part of the deal,” says Dev’s friend Denise. The show even gets into the treatment of elderly people, information era indecision from Yelp ratings, and repression of emotional displays from immigrant parents and the privilege of their children. The central theme of the show is beautifully summed up by its title, feeling inadequate in becoming an adult.
Unlike some shows that poorly use fictionalized computer jargon to appear hip, the tech and social networking displayed in the show doesn’t get in the way, and feels entirely natural. It dates the show as 2015 with the unique culture of 2015, but doesn’t overtly push any tech, real or fake, down our throats.
Master of None concludes with perhaps its strongest topic on young adult life: the sunset of young adult life. Feeling societal pressure to settle down at 30 and the expectation for that decision to be a 100% certainty, Dev and Rachel go into crisis. They can’t simply “live in the moment” anymore. At 30, their life trajectory is supposed to be stabilized and set by having a significant other. They’d spent a couple of years on each other, and were at the point of “no messing around”. Dev’s parents had an arranged marriage, sort of a decisive blindness compared to his own indecisive and blurry view of all life paths and opportunities. Episodes prior to the romantic crisis peak, Rachel describes seeing so many friends that dreamt of spontaneously moving abroad, but gave up those potential experiences for a nuclear family. Rachel felt pain for their loss of opportunity, and ultimately chooses Tokyo over Dev.
Dev relevantly lands on a quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
He then orders plane tickets, deceiving us to expect the standard rom-com reunion. Instead, he blindly and decisively chooses to move to Italy to become a pasta chef, equally breaking the cycle Rachel observed and swerved from.
My human instincts deeply want the standard cliché. Maybe, next season will offer it, and I’ll finally be satiated in a year. But for this arc, I’m consciously pleased Aziz didn’t fulfill me. Master also didn’t let either character hit rock bottom after the other’s choice, and Rachel was not, “merely a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Dev to court; she’s going through much of the same soul-searching he is, trying to figure out if she wants to give up her career ambitions for a “normal” adult life,” as Sarkar described.
This ending offered a chaotic balance. I can feel both of them going through extreme heartbreak, yet dealing with it by adding extreme change and experience to the mix. That chaotic balance–a cop-out in the best of ways–was a fitting way to conclude an empathetic show about social uncertainty in the waning years of youth and transition to “having shit together”.