Dev of All Trades

Just when we thought we’d seen the one billionth iteration of the auteur argument in cinema, now we have to deal with it on television.

Look, I get it!  Television is hard.  It takes a lot of people to put out that 22-44 minutes of televised entertainment.  Even in the age of cheap digital video, it takes a lot of money and time to put all that stuff together.  The terms themselves are loaded.  Did you know how many people it takes to write a TV show?  Did you even know that TV shows are written?  I did, but that’s only because I don’t have a job doing it and I’m bitter about it.

My point is.

Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix sitcom, Master of None, falls into that mushy spot we’ve come to call ‘auteur television’ in the kind of articles I also don’t have a job doing.  It’s been almost inevitably compared to Louis CK’s Louie, and on the surface at least, there are some similarities:  they’re both set in a funky bohemian New York; they both have a pulled-together ’70s indie-cinema vibe; they both have lively soundtracks and rough, rambling narratives; and they both rely on the viewer’s identification with the main character, who is more or less based on the actor who plays him.

Louie‘s Louis is almost entirely Louis CK, give or take a fake wife or two, but Aziz Ansari refracts himself at least slightly by taking on the role of Dev Shah, who is slightly younger, a bit less successful, and a C-list actor rather than a comedian.  Since the key to both shows is how well you identify with the worldview and personality the creators choose to present, it’s good luck for Ansari that he’s so likable here.  In his standup, he’s usually funny but often dangerously callow; but with the recent release of his book, Modern Romance:  An Investigation and the debut of Master of None, he’s proven to be surprisingly deep, at least by the low standards we set for professional comedians.

Regardless of how near the ground that particular bar is, Ansari is lots of fun to watch here.  With the ascendence of nerd culture, we’re used to being lectured to about how great it is to be enthusiastic about things, but Ansari’s Dev is an enthusiast who’s also got standards.  He loves the things he loves, and we love him for loving them, but he’s not uncritical; he’s able to spot the ironies of his own life, if not at first, at least gradually through the slow process of self-realization that a lot of shows don’t have time for.  (One of the funniest moments involves Anzsari and his friend Arnold, played by Eric Wareheim, shopping for a kids’ party.  They start off on a reliably funny riff about how dumb and easily amused children are, only to find themselves gleefully captivated by a dopey dinosaur toy.)

For all its trappings, though, Master of None isn’t Louie, to both its credit and its loss.  For one thing, it’s much more a collaborative effort than a singular vision; Master of None is co-created by the talented and perceptive Alan Yang, and was shepherded into development by the late, lamented Harris Wittels, whose fingerprints are all over it.  While Louie is almost entirely a product of CK’s imagination, right down to the editing, Ansari is smart enough to bring in talented people to back him up rather than trying to learn everything himself — though it’s not unimaginable to see him creating a much more auteur-driven show ten years down the road.  Master is also a lot more traditional in its subject matter; though its riffs on dating, aging, family, and career are clever enough, they’re still pretty standard, and lack the singular genius of Louie.  It never makes you nervous for fear that it’s going to go entirely off the rails, but also never delivers the rewards that come with that risk.

Then again, it’s its own show, and not a bad one for all that.  Part of that is thanks to Ansari’s game-for-anything enthusiasm; it’s incredibly charming when, for his first real date with Rachel (Noël Wells), he goes all in and drags her off for a weekend in Nashville.  When he decides to present himself as a feminist, he goes at it with a rookie’s scrappiness; even sleeping with a married woman is a decision that, while reluctantly arrived at, he goes into full bore once he makes the decision.  The show is much better at being sweet than it is being bitter (not surprising, given the Parks and Recreation pedigree of so many of its primaries), and it could never be accused of having much of an edge; it also has a big problem with knowing how to end episodes, with at least half of them just sort of stopping.  But it’s generally pretty funny, and often in bright, unexpected ways.

The cast, too, isn’t entirely on point.  Ansari himself has an awful lot to do here, and if Master of None doesn’t have a huge amount of emotional weight, it may be for the best that he doesn’t give himself more heft than he can lift.  Wells is extremely charming as Rachel, and the up-for-anything Wareheim is a great addition to the cast; he gets most of the most absurd lines and actions, and the hilarious disparity between his hulking, pot-bellied 6’6″ frame and Ansari’s petite 5’7″ body kickstarts some pretty good physical comedy on its own.  Lena Waithe as Denise is always fun, even if her character is still a bit of a cypher, and it’s always fun to seen Jon Benjamin.  The decision to cast Ansari’s own parents, Shoukath and Fatima, as Dev’s parents has been much talked-about; they’re pretty adorable amateurs, and their clumsy line readings would bring most shows to a grinding halt, but here they have just enough to do not to wear out their welcome, and so little ego that Ansari can’t really be accused of letting his self-indulgence run wild.

I haven’t seen any data on how well Master of None is performing, but for all its flaws, it’s interesting and funny enough for me to hope it has a second season.  By then, Ansari will have developed a lot more skills, not to mention confidence, and that can only mean better things for Dev Shah.

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