Aziz Ansari has not followed the path of obscurity taken by many actors who have been on a sitcom and then clam up when the series ends. After securing a firm place on the spectrum of comedic gold as Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, Ansari has switched gears into the realm that can best be described as Millennial High Dramedy. Proving himself a worthy leading man in the new Netflix series Master of None, Ansari takes on plights common to the age group, including relationships, the difficulty of human interaction and parents–except with actual feeling that doesn’t veer toward melodrama.
Set in Brooklyn (Williamsburg, naturally) and sometimes Manhattan, Ansari’s character, Dev, has the same naiveté and disconnectedness from reality as Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, except it comes across in a genuine, non-annoying way. With locations that mirror the same set as Girls, including the likes of High Horse Saloon in Williamsburg (where Dev goes to get coffee so that the camera can pan out to ironically show that it’s inside of a hair salon) and Achilles’ Heel in Greenpoint, Ansari is recreating the legend of the original hipster by turning the white stereotype of it on its ear. In fact, one can’t even count the amount of times white jokes are made throughout the span of the ten episodes that compose the first season.
Still, like Girls, there are certain formulas followed, as with Dev’s awkward first one-night stand with a girl named Rachel (Noël Wells) that results in the need for an immediate run to the drugstore for some Plan B, mirroring the same sort of uncomfortable sex scene that takes place between Hannah and Adam (Adam Driver) in the pilot episode. This leads Dev to a discomfited goodbye at the end of the night, assuming he will probably never see her again. Another part of the formula, of course, is having three friends for the main character to confide in. But, again, Ansari distorts the perception of hipster existence by actually having friends from different ethnic backgrounds. There’s Brian (Kelvin Yu), his Asian friend, Denise (Lena Waithe), his black lesbian friend–the best and most hilarious cohort–and Arnold (Eric Wareheim), his fat white friend. It isn’t clear what any of his friends really do, as being a confused late 20s to early 30s person is a full-time job in and of itself. Dev is the only one with a distinct “profession,” which is to say, he occasionally acts in commercials, one for Go-Gurt being his most lucrative. He tries to find meaning through his search for a girl, and sometimes even a surrogate family, as is the case when he agrees to take care of his friend Amanda’s (Maria Dizzia of that other Netflix show, Orange Is The New Black) two children for a few hours, convinced that his life will be void if he doesn’t have any of his own. When he realizes how unenjoyable it is to be responsible for another human being, he reverts instantly to the selfishness millennials are so frequently profiled for. In other quests, he pursues the perfect woman more often than the perfect acting role, which leads him to a Father John Misty secret concert at Baby’s All Right (the most hipster sentence ever uttered) in episode three, “Hot Ticket.” He takes a girl named Alice there, who he only asks out based on her looks, and quickly finds that inner beauty does indeed count for something. After the date goes awry, he re-encounters Rachel, intrigued by how laid-back and musically inclined she is. But alas, the timing is all wrong, which Dev finds out later in the night when she confesses her ex-boyfriend is trying to make it work with her.
Guest stars abound as well, which they tend to on any NYC-based show (e.g. Broad City). Claire Danes makes the most out of her role as Nina in episode five, “The Other Man.” Something of a play on her own personal history with Billy Crudup, Danes plays a food critic with the desire to have an affair to get back at her husband for generally being a terrible person. She makes deliberately faux scandalizing statements like, “Do you want some weed? It’s purple pineapple. I always smoke it before sex,” so as to let Dev know she’s ready to get down to business. What she doesn’t let him know right away, however, is that she’s married–which Dev is left to find out via the numerous photos of her husband positioned near the couch where their tryst is supposed to begin. It is another of many bumbling and artless moments that populate the life of a North Brooklyn resident, seeing as how largely meaningless sex is par for the course of going out from night to night.
Around the sixth episode, Ansari shifts the tone to a more serious bent as he takes Rachel out on their first date to Nashville (also the title of the episode)–again a hipster on steroids move, but well-played by Dev. During their stay at the supposedly haunted hotel, a running joke between the two, Dev and Rachel share an instant bond that is abruptly ruined at the end of the trip when Dev makes them late to the airport so he can go to the other side of town to pick up some of Tickler’s white barbeque sauce that he tasted and fell in love with while dining at the eponymous restaurant. The sudden pall cast over their previously rosy trip is an interesting commentary on the current generation’s difficulty with being able to spend prolonged periods of time with any one person without inciting some sort of conflict. In fact, allusions to the worldly ways of the bygone generation’s know-how are made in episode eight, “Old People.”
By this time, Dev and Rachel have become “steady,” as they used to say, and thus Dev has no qualms about going with her to visit her grandma, Carol (Lynn Cohen a.k.a. Magda from Sex and the City), in the Bronx after Arnold’s grandpa dies just when Dev was getting to know him. The sudden death prompts Dev to ponder the cruelty endured by old people, who are simply relegated into an area and left to deteriorate. It is a more profound revelation than any of Hannah’s compilation of sexual encounters or her discovering that grad school is a sham. So fascinated by the far more exciting, yet simultaneously dignified life of those who lived their youth during a major war and subsequent economic boon, Dev is even convinced by Carol to sneak her out of the rest home so they can go to an Italian restaurant called Bamonte’s. There, he learns of her past life hitching a ride on an ice truck to see Frank Sinatra and stealing a car on a whim. But, as with most things that one is momentarily interested in, it’s unlikely that Dev will persist in visiting Carol on the regular.
“Mornings,” the second to last episode, is arguably one of the hardest to watch for its veracity. By this time, Rachel is moving in and romance gives way to intimacy, which then gives way to boredom. The episode is shot in such a way as to let us know by the alarm clock with the date on it each morning how much time has passed. Because of this, “Mornings” feels much longer than the other episodes, an intentional effect no doubt due to how often the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable watching Dev’s relationship get to the life support stage. The amount of time that passes in the season is accelerated vastly by this one episode, making for a total of nearly two years that Dev and Rachel are supposed to have been together. When the hard decision has to be made about whether or not they should persist in keeping up the pretense of truly wanting to stay with one another, the script supervision comes in handy with the invocation of each person’s former mentioned desires to move to separate countries (she to Japan, he to Italy). These seeming pipe dreams prove very useful to building toward an “up in the air” finale. That, and the recitation of Sylvia Plath’s fig tree paragraph from The Bell Jar, easily the most succinct summation of how millennials (and their many generational forebears) feel semi-possessing all of these unwieldy choices at their fingertips. And, as Ansari confirms, there is no better archetypal spokesperson for this phenomenon than Dev. Dunham has been dethroned.