There is a serious danger in praising a television show for its choice of subject matter instead of its acting, composition, or production quality: at that point you are talking about the creators’ intentions rather than their product, and something as evanescent as an intention is beyond the purview of criticism. Or rather, it is underneath it: a fact that becomes more evident when praise for a show that engages racism in the TV and film industry turns into blame that it didn’t engage those issues well enough.
What exactly would be “well enough?” It is impossible to say, not because we can’t picture a version of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None where every scene sent the right message about race, but because the show would be neither accurate nor funny if it did. Besides, Master of None’s technical achievements are too noteworthy to make engaging in the cloudy blame-game of political criticism a tempting prospect.
Ansari is a multi-talented comic who has accomplished the rare feat of becoming more mature and sophisticated as his popularity swells. Those who loved his show-stealing portrayal of Tom Haverford in the sunny sitcom Parks and Recreation will recognize the quick grin and fast delivery he mastered during its seven-season run. But that delivery has matured. In the first episode, when he offers a woman a jar of apple juice to go with her Plan-B pill, his shrugs and banter do more than offset the scene’s brilliant awkwardness: they reveal his character’s deep misgivings about how suddenly serious the breezy post-millennial dating world has just become. You can see it in the way his face falls: an epiphany about the frightening yet enticing possibility of fatherhood that Ansari manages to get across in just a few frames of well-timed grimacing. Master of None is full of similar moments: evidence that Ansari’s physical control is catching up to his wit.
Just as well-crafted is the sitcom’s consistently bleary mise-en-scene. It evokes a colorful, caffeinated New York City where twenty and thirty-somethings are getting a lot of work done by day, then systematically mistreating their bodies at night in hip bars and coffee shops. Through careful scene construction, the demands of productivity are regularly contrasted with the search for meaning: important dialogue is always taking place in transit. Ansari’s shiftless protagonist Dev and his friends unpack serious dilemmas about identity and ambition in the back of cabs, or along crowded pathways in city parks. The flash of traffic lights and red brick of New York’s historic neighborhoods hover and buzz around the bustling characters, whose pontifications are constantly derailed by phone calls from work, texts from their parents, or the sudden need to take care of a friend’s kids. Colorful situation comedy inevitably ensues.
But this over saturated palate is frequently cut through by darkness: just as in a doctored-up picture, the shadows intensify along with the light. The signature scene from episode one, where Dev and his latest conquest sip apple juice and stare into the middle distance, takes place in an Uber at night, where deep shadows are raked by the passing street lights’ neon haze. The moment is funny, but the characters have dark circles around their eyes. Ansari’s ability to highlight the existential dilemmas of being young and urban without being preachy or obvious is a welcome contrast to both his standup comedy’s unconsidered irreverence and Parks and Recreation’s overflowing sap. Master of None’s combination of technical flourish and restraint, as many critics have noted, proves that Ansari and its other creators know just what they’re doing.
It is this obvious, technical proof of the show’s professionalism which make its most politically uptight detractors sound so windy. You can picture Ansari smiling at the critics who accuse Master of None of racially insensitive casting choices. In a recent piece for Paper, Sandra Song, notes “a marked absence of South and East Asian-American women in the cast.” Yet to pick the show apart for such reasons only confirms one of its most emphatic messages: that for actors and screenwriters, it is impossible to both follow your creative inklings and satisfy such a persnickety, yet hypocritical audience. The point of Master of None’s painstakingly awkward scenario humor is not just that the conversation about race in the world of film and TV still needs to be had, but that in the current climate, it might be impossible to have correctly. As Song herself writes just a little later, “you can’t make everyone happy.”
Eventually, like the protagonist Dev, writers and characters alike are going to have to sit down, talk, be heard, and offend someone. As a writer, to do anything less would mean you weren’t bold enough to have an actual message. To do anything more would be to make your work a slave to its own themes.
Mercifully, Master of None makes neither of these mistakes, because its creators concentrated on cinematic and comedic craft instead of the political demands of their audience. Like the novelist celebrated by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang engaged their hefty subject matter with finesse, precisely because they paid no attention to “…the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all…shouting warning and advice.” In other words, they didn’t allow their art to be devoured by someone else’s prescriptions about how it should treat its themes. The result is a show where characters often grow weary of being wary, who joke around and make mistakes. In other words, it is a show that depicts our complicated social life as it actually transpires.