Reviewing every episode of Aziz Ansari's 'Master of None' season 1
I posted my review of Aziz Ansari's "Master of None" last week. Netflix's binge-release business model makes episodic reviews impractical (I've tried a hybrid model with "Orange Is the New Black" the last few seasons, with very mixed success), so I thought I would try something different. You already know my overall thoughts from the prior piece, so I'm going to offer up quick thoughts on each individual episode (with spoilers for all), coming up just as soon as I begin the night with an aggressive Cartman impression...
Episode 1: Plan B
The broken condom anecdote is pretty terrific and unusual as a way into the Dev/Rachel relationship that will play out over the rest of the season. Like so much of the show, the devil winds up being in the details, like the way the Uber driver is blasting rap music to make things extra uncomfortable for them.
Dev's newfound curiosity about whether to have kids, while establishing the template that will be used in many of the ensuing episodes, is probably the show's least successful approach to it. Nothing wrong, and some of the specific misbehaviors of the kids are funny, but the larger idea feels broader and more familiar than most of the other topics the show hits. And speaking of which...
Episode 2: Parents
The sequence contrasting the fathers' childhoods in India and Taiwan, contrasted with Dev and Brian having grown up into pampered, whiny man-boys, was poignant and hilarious and absolutely sold me on the show. (It's the rare screener — especially given how awful Netflix's press site is to use — that made me go back to the beginning, call in my wife, and say, "You will want to watch this, right now.") Ansari and Alan Yang have talked about how the idea of exploring their fathers' lives was autobiographical (though I don't know if all the specific details, like the butchered chicken, come from their real stories), and even before we get to "Indians on TV," it's serving as an object lesson in the value of TV diversity. Leaving aside whatever social good gets accomplished through having more diverse casts, more diverse writing staffs, more diverse directors, etc., on a storytelling level, it gives you so many more options. We've seen plenty of stories before about adults trying to connect to uncommunicative parents, but we've never seen this exact version of it, and this was funny and well-observed. Ansari's parents are very obviously not actors, but the enthusiasm of the real Dr. Ansari, and the obvious rapport he has with his son, made up for his deficits when it came to delivering dialogue naturally.
Episode 3: Hot Ticket
This one has a Story By credit for the late Harris Wittels, to whom the entire season was dedicated. If you knew Harris' comedy (whether from "Parks and Rec," Twitter, stand-up, podcasts, etc.), the idea of trying to leverage a rare concert ticket for the best sexual situation — and having it blow up in Dev's face — seems the exact kind of plot he'd devise for this show.
This one has a great guest turn by Tony winner (and "Hannibal" alum) Nina Arianda as the waitress who seems like the best possible ticket option, but turns out to be a crazy, jacket-stealing nightmare. It also moves along Dev's involvement in "The Sickening," and introduces H. Jon Benjamin as one of his co-stars in "the black virus movie."
Episode 4: Indians on TV
"Indians on TV" confronts the question of diversity — and the many problems created by the "there can't be two" philosophy(*) — head-on, in a way that's thoughtful and pointed without ever descending into a harangue.
(*) Ansari was on NBC at a time when the network had by far the best track record, in that moment, or ever, in terms of Indian representation on TV, with him on "Parks and Rec," Mindy Kaling on "The Office," Danny Pudi on "Community," Vik Sahay on "Chuck," Maulik Pancholy recurring on "30 Rock" (and then a regular on "Whitney") and, briefly, the cast of "Outsourced." Of course, the only one of those shows with more than one actor of Indian descent was "Outsourced," which was bad and ended quickly, which only makes it harder for future attempts to defy "there can't be two."
Oscar Winner Fisher Stevens donning brownface for the "Short Circuit" movies was always weird (though I, like Ravi and Anush, at first assumed he was an Indian actor), and there's a long and unfortunate history of that in Hollywood. Dev playing Indian Balki in a "Perfect Strangers" remake wouldn't entirely fix the problem (and would also make me worried that Dev might vanish in a Sudden Departure if "Master of None" and "The Leftovers" are set in the same universe), but at least it'd be an Indian-American actor in the role. And "Is Mindy Kaling real?" was the perfect punchline to all this.
Also, how funny was Danielle Brooks from "Orange Is the New Black" as Dev's agent? ("I'm trying to get this 'Friends' money, and you fuckin' it up!")
Episode 5: The Other Man
Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich have done comedies before, but neither of them is particularly known for being funny. Neither, for that matter, is Colin Salmon, playing himself as another of Dev's "Sickening" co-stars. But all three were a lot of fun here, with Danes and Emmerich trying to outdo each other in awfulness, and Salmon being excellently weird in his attempt to get Dev to help him write a movie where he's a superhero who turns into a car.
Also, the exchange where Dev tells Emmerich's character about the ice cream shop incident, followed by a disbelieving Emmerich replying, "So you fucked my wife?" is one of the season's funniest moments.
Episode 6: Nashville
It's a travelogue episode, and the most overtly "Louie"-ish installment so far. Lots of good chemistry on display between Ansari and Noel Wells as they explore the eponymous city, try on local fashions, pretend there's a ghost in a hotel room, and generally have a good time together. And Dev's guilt at messing up the flight because he had to get the white BBQ sauce is a reminder that he's mostly a very well-meaning guy who just doesn't think things through.
Dev and Arnold's "Lose Yourself" debate, meanwhile, has me more confused than ever about the "This ain't no movie, there's no Mekhi Phifer" lyric.
Episode 7: Ladies and Gentlemen
"Ladies and Gentlemen" smartly comes after Dev and Rachel have begun dating, so there's no ulterior motive in his interactions with the women from his home improvement commercial. He's just trying, as he does in many of these episodes, to see things from another perspective, and the show finds a funny way to illustrate the differences between men and women's experience going home from bars by scoring Dev and Arnold's walk to "Don't Worry Be Happy," while the woman's walk uses a piece of the "Halloween" score. The scene where the director avoids shaking hands with the women touches on the kind of small but telling detail that most guys wouldn't even notice, and shows that even when Dev is trying hard to see things differently, it's hard to get out of his own mindset.
Bonus points for Dev and Denise playing subway vigilante and mostly getting it right, and for Arnold being so silly and useless at helping Rachel negotiate a price for the couch. Because Netflix's press site for some reason put "Indians on TV" out of order, I watched this one first, meaning I missed Anush's introduction. Then again, it's not exactly hard to figure out who he is with just this context: a jacked, handsome Indian actor friend of Dev's.
Episode 8: Old People
Structurally, this is pretty similar to "Parents," but Lynn Cohen is so fabulous as Rachel's grandmother Carol, and the writing of her new friendship with Dev so strong and specific, that it doesn't play like a rehash. Loved that even she couldn't entirely explain why she stole the car, and that she wound up singing on stage at the jazz club. Also, while the supporting characters tend to be there only to interact with Dev, this is two episodes in a row where we follow Arnold for a bit when he's off on his own (or, in "Ladies and Gentlemen," with Rachel), as he becomes surprisingly attached to his grandfather's robotic seal.
Episode 9: Mornings
Covering nearly a year in Dev and Rachel's relationship (from July 6 through June 7) in the space of one episode is probably not something Ansari and Yang could have done on a network comedy. (I once was in the "Parks" writers room while Greg Daniels shot down any season premiere pitches that involved covering a long period of time, because NBC and other networks like their shows to stick relatively close to the calendar of when they'll be airing.) Predictably, "Mornings" follows the couple from the honyemoon phase through more difficult times, but what's interesting is how we're not following a straight line, but instead seeing them through many ups and downs. Along the way, some things that seem like they could lead to huge fights turn out just fine, like Dev having kept Rachel a secret from his parents, while other issues like Dev's need to have a clean floor turn into bigger issues than you'd expect.
Dev finally using the pasta maker not only sets up his decision in the finale, but is a reminder that cooking is an inherently cinematic activity. (Anytime Louis C.K. cooks on "Louie," it's also a highlight.) And Dev describing their entire relationship to this point — including the initial meeting that we never saw, plus the broken condom incident that was our intro to them — as a realistic fairy tale ("I don't know about happily ever after, but they're pretty happy right now") was lovely.
Episode 10: Finale
Dev's frustration at missing out on the taco truck — "What am I supposed to do? Eat the second-best taco, like some kind of asshole?" — was funny, but also reinforced what we'd already seen throughout the season, in terms of his difficulty making choices. Even the acting career is less something he chose than something he fell into, and getting cut out of "The Sickening" — even though his character is the one who delivers the line you would expect to be the key to any "Sickening" trailer — helps him recognize that, just as his friends' flowery wedding vows force him to question his commitment to Rachel, and in turn leads her to wonder the same. (The great thing about his terrible percentage game is that, when I described it to people in the real world who weren't watching the show, they were just as dismayed by the sound of it as all of Dev's friends were. Very bad idea, man.)
The final sequence suggests he's going to fly to Tokyo to try to win her back, but in going to pasta school in Italy (friend of the blog Myles McNutt points out this is foreshadowed in "Hot Ticket," where Alice asks him where he'd like to live if he could pick), he makes the same basic choice she does: trying to do something adventurous in his life while he still has time to. Assuming there's a second season (and Netflix renews everything, so it's hard to imagine a show this well-reviewed not getting at least another year), I figure their paths will cross again, but this fit better than the conventional romantic comedy move.
Also? I'm sure Maggie Gyllenhaal's narration on the audiobook of "The Bell Jar" is just fine, but I would not have expected Ansari's reading of the passage about the fig tree to be nearly as engrossing as that was. Time for a side career?
What did everybody else think? Did you prefer the relationship episodes or the Dev Learns Something episodes? Any guest stars you felt the show used particularly well? Did you laugh? Were you moved? And if Netflix renews it, will you watch again?
Have at it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org