Famously pitched as “a show about nothing,” Seinfeld achieved unprecedented and unsurpassed cultural permeation by being a show very much about something: the shared experience, down to the minute and mundane, of life in the ‘90s. It was born out of Seinfeld’s stand-up, his signature phrase in which being “What’s the deal with…?” Each episode expounded on the blank in that phrase, analyzing exactly what the deal was with low talkers, double dippers, and a million other idiosyncrasies, while the series as a whole captured broadly life in the closing years of the 20th century. It was to the small screen sitcom what Seurat was to canvas.
Master of None, starring and created by Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation fame, sets for itself the same objective, albeit with more moderate ambition. Master of None too asks the question (sans a Seinfeldian cold open featuring Ansari preforming at a comedy club) “What’s the deal with…?” it’s topics ranging from hook-ups and relationships to gender and race relations to parents and the elderly.
There’s a risk to such a question, however, one which Seinfeld calculated far better than Ansari. “What’s the deal with airplane food?” is only humorous to those who have eaten while flying. Air travel being nearly ubiquitous makes it an easy source of comedy, as did the experiences of waiting for a table at a restaurant, going to the movies with friends, or looking for a car in a parking lot. Ansari, alternatively, spends a great deal of the series asking “What’s the deal with…?” less universal and more particular issues.
Being absent of absurdity, satire, slapstick, wordplay, or any other species of comedy, when the show’s observations prove obtuse, the humor falls flat. Whether a levity brought about by laughter or a sorrow brought on by sympathy, the only times it was capable of making me feel anything was when one of the main character Dev’s experiences corresponded closely to my own. Even then, the show is less successful in making the viewer care about the character of Dev and more so brings to memory the emotions of one’s own experiences.
As an example, the third episode, “Hot Tickets,” proved for me the most familiar and, as a result, the most humorous and enjoyable. Dev has occasion to ask one of several women out on a date, and despite the lowest level of compatibility, asks out the most attractive of the three, a waitress named Alice. Upon doing so, Alice informs Dev that she needs to find out her work schedule for the following week first. Dev gives Alice his number, not receiving a single message from her until hours beforehand, wherein she tells him she can’t make it. Frustrated but undeterred, Dev begins to go through the women in his contacts list, sending out the same form message to each in the hopes that one (and only one, lest things prove awkward) would agree to go out with him that night. One agrees, expressing a great deal of excitement, but Dev in turn cancels on her when Alice texts that she could make the date after all. When the date ends prematurely, he attempts to salvage the night by wooing a seemingly potential paramour, only to learn after hours of flirting that she’s in a committed relationship.
There’s no punchline here to the joke of “What’s the deal with trying to get a date?” but, having been in that exact situation on numerous occasions, having had it play out with striking similarity, I know there is no punchline because there is no answer. Trying to score a date is almost always a bad deal, both parties speaking past each other when they’re speaking to each other at all. Such was likely always the case, but the particulars here are especially emblematic of the experience for Millennials.
Contrast that with the seventh episode, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” in which Dev remains an observer of the experience of being a woman in the 21st century. Because Ansari cannot portray this directly, Dev is reduced to a more passive role, eliminating his relatability and limiting him to mere empathy. As with “trying to get a date,” “What’s the deal with being a woman?” likewise lacks an answer, but as Ansari tells the joke, it also lacks a set-up; it’s observational humor minus the observation or the humor. By the episode’s end, Dev as a character and Master of None as a show both walk away with no insight into the matter, leaving the viewer neither entertained nor enlightened.
That is not to say the series as a whole is without a message. After a particularly weak penultimate episode in “Mornings,” Master of None delivers an amazingly poignant finale in, appropriately, “Finale.” The preceding nine and a half episodes find their thematic unity in the lack of agency Dev experiences, not for lack of choices but for an unwillingness to make those choices, unsure which path is best, only sure that such precludes other paths. It is the great crisis Millennials face at the moment, having overextended adolescence as we sleepwalked through our twenties, only to be violently awoken by the Big Three-Oh and all the frightening lucidity of adulthood. Dev’s actions in the end simultaneously embrace and reject such, acquiring agency over his future but utilizing such to exert that total and supreme spontaneity which is proprietary to youth.
Coming in at a very binge friendly total of ten episodes, Master of None foregoes the strong serialized nature of its Netflix brethren; taken into account with its middling quality, the five hours of content were a drudge to get through, even broken over several nights. There seems little prospect of renewal, not due to the reception, which aside from my own opinions seems universal positive, but because Ansari seems to have said his peace; his commentary on modern life may not be exhaustive, but it does seem complete, as does Dev’s arc as a character, with no logical direction to go which wouldn’t prove a regression or digression.
Master of None is a jack of all trades, trying to convey empathy, humor, insight, relatability, and social commentary; it is more successful at some of these than others, but ultimately proves to be a master of none.