Master of None: A Television Blueprint for Modern City Life
After watching Aziz Ansari’s comeback comedy special Right Now on Netflix, I had a hankering to rewatch Ansari’s sitcom Master of None. I remember loving it the first time I watched it, but whenever I thought about why I wasn’t entirely sure on the primary reason.
I remember it being incredibly cinematic: the way it’s shot, the authentic New York locations, and a smattering of big-time actors. I also remember it being incredibly funny: Aziz’s character Dev hiding in a cupboard in his underwear, Ansari’s real-life parents playing themselves, and basically any scene with Eric Wareheim in it. But I remember thinking there was definitely more to why I enjoyed it so much.
After rewatching the show’s first three episodes from the first season, it became really obvious. It’s an almost perfect blueprint of modern life in a major city. It’s relatable and warm, and it’s filled with lots of cultural touchstones that endear you to the show, even when, like me, you’ve never even set foot in New York. In this article, I will look at three key elements that make this show such a relatable one for people of a certain age.
Friends (The Real Kind, With No Jennifer Aniston)
In Episode One, Plan B, Dev spends some time with two of his best friends, Eric Wareheim’s Arnold and Lena Waithe’s Denise, all three of whom come from different ethnic backgrounds. Not only is this fact representative of living in a big city with much more diversity, but the way they meet up and hang out is also very realistic too.
They catch up, discuss their love lives, and then make more plans for later in the week, when one of them, Denise, can’t make it. This always happens, the older you get, the busier you get. But, plans don’t get cancelled because one friend can’t make it, they either go ahead sans that friend or get rescheduled. But when you watch a show like Friends, almost every big plot point or hang out session occurs when every single one of the main cast members is there. Meeting your friends in the exact same coffee shop every single day just isn’t feasible and taking that even further in modern city life, simply meeting up with them every day is near impossible.
In Episode Two, Parents, we don’t see Arnold or Denise at all. We see another of Dev’s friends, Brian. And the rest of that episode revolves around those two, their friendship, and their relationship with their respective parents. This is normal. People hang out with different groups of friends all the time. In Episode Three, we see all four of the friends together, at other points throughout the season, we see Dev with new friends entirely. It’s normal. Looking at the credits for all twenty episodes, Brian is in six episodes, Denise is in ten, and Arnold is in fourteen. They’re all friends, but just to varying degrees.
Sometimes it’s hard to nail a friend down for a certain plan and you go without seeing them for a few weeks, but that doesn’t mean you stop being friends with them. Master of None’s approach to hanging with friends is incredibly realistic. Sometimes there are one-on-one hangs, sometimes the groups get mixed up – Friend A with Friend C, or Friend B with D, and sometimes a new friend gains a partner, meaning you go without seeing them for a few months. It happens. That’s life. And I think the show’s regular rotation of friends is vital to it striking a chord with modern audiences.
In 2017, Riz Ahmed gave a speech on diversity for Channel 4 at the House of Commons in London. He spoke about how diversity as a term wasn’t enough for seeing people of colour on screen and instead we should call it representation. Speaking specifically about young Asian teens in Britain, he said that unless kids start to see actors that look like them they will start to “switch off and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria”.
This has something that has long been a problem in media, but thankfully one that is slowly getting better with each passing year. Master of None is one TV show that could never be accused of shying away from race issues and its diverse cast of characters is not only progressive but also, completely representative of modern life in a major city.
In Episode Two – Parents, Dev and Brian spend the entire episode either talking about or hanging out with their parents. At first, they share awkward exchanges and plan to be elsewhere, but after discussing their relationships with each other, they realise that they don’t give their parents enough credit for making their journey to America. Wanting to rectify this, they set out to spend more time with them. They ask them about their lives and struggles. And at the end of the episode, they reach a new status quo. Not only is this a lovely arc to watch, but it skillfully navigates the array of different cultures and upbringings of the suburban people we mix with every day.
It’s no surprise that people from all over the world share our cities these days, but it is nice to have a reminder of how many of them got here, it adds some much-needed colour to the story, in more ways than one.
Master of None has faced some criticism for supposedly being too millennial-focused, and while that may be true in terms of the activities and lifestyles the protagonists lead, the writers have an acute sense of irony when presenting it. Yes, the characters are presented as being #woke, but in a lot of ways, it’s completely made fun of too.
Moving back to Episode Two once more, the most telling example of this is when Brian’s father asks his son to pick him up a bag of rice. Remember, this is the son he struggled to bring up in America, the son who he moved his entire life halfway across the world for just so he could have a better one. But when asked to do this simple task, he says no. All because he wants to answer the little trivia questions they ask in between trailers at the cinema.
As well as being a funny exchange in its own right, the scene gets an added layer of sympathy when we flashback to Brian’s dad’s past in Taiwan. These struggles juxtapose Brian’s infantile issues really well and remind us that many problems we face in our modern lives are inconsequential when compared with some of the problems others are facing.
Another great example of this comes in Episode Three – Hot Ticket, when Dev is trying to find a date for a concert. Having been ghosted for a few days by his potential date, only to receive a text the day before informing him that she can no longer make it, Dev bemoans modern dating. He calls out millennials for having a lack of respect and wishes they’d have more common courtesy. And this is a point of view that many can share.
Mobile phones have given people the opportunity to dip in and out of social engagements whenever they please, making organising plans both super convenient but also incredibly inconvenient. Yes, it is harsh when someone ignores your third text in as many days, but your phone is also a saviour when you realise you can just reject that annoying work colleague’s call when you know he’s just going to ask for a favour. Hot Ticket illustrates this really well.
A matter of minutes after being let down by his date and chastising modern communication, Dev sends out a group text to three girls (one of which he can only identify by the fact that she wore a headband) and plays them off each other to secure another date. When one replies with a message that doesn’t suit his liking, he fires back an instant message of “sorry, ticket got taken”.
This instant 360 is a hilarious pastiche of modern morals and noble stances, and a perfect representation of dating in the 21st century.
Another criticism that Master of None has faced is that it is a show a bit too concerned with the Zeitgeist, a word meaning “something of this current age and/or time”, and because of that, it can’t be enjoyed by the mass public. For example, the copious mentions of boba tea, apps being used for everything, the usage of Yelp instead of plain old Google reviews.
Delving into the show again, I can definitely see a case to make for this being true. A lot of its storylines, themes, jokes, and settings are perhaps only relevant to the here and now. Even though there are definitely elements that are accessible for all ages, that specific critique is almost spot on. But then again, a piece of art should never be for everyone. And if you live a similar life to Dev at a similar age in a similar city, Master of None can be one of the most rewarding watches in recent history.
What do you think? Leave a comment.