“Master of None,” Aziz Ansari’s refreshingly optimistic Netflix comedy about yet another emotionally tentative, occasionally lovelorn New Yorker, bears at least a passing resemblance to FX’s “Louie,” the ingenious quasi-comedy starring Louis C.K. as a divorced father and comedian who also endures a series of strange personal encounters in the city, seen from the downhill slope that begins in the mid-40s.
Adhering to a Woody Allen aesthetic, both men write and star in shows that are about a version of themselves and their worldviews. But halfway through “Master of None’s” 10 episodes (which begin streaming Friday), I realized that I was binging — and straight-up enjoying — a show that could just as easily be called “Millennial Louie.” The differences are as striking as the similarities.
As Dev, a 30-year-old Indian American actor who works mainly in TV commercials, Ansari (who is 32) seems physically and psychologically incapable of summoning the neurotic sadness of a character who experiences anything like the banal inhumanity that accompanies one of Louie’s rainy days.
Ansari just isn’t Gen-X enough for the deeply dyspeptic — and I mean that as a compliment, not only to him, but also to his ilk. They’re just happier.
Sunshine practically bursts out of Dev’s eyes and ears. The weather in his world is always cloudless and bright; Dev is happy-go-lucky even when his character experiences a momentary setback, whether he’s realizing (for a big example) that his role as an infected immunologist in a mediocre disaster movie called “The Sickening” is not the big break he hopes it will be, or discovering (for a small example) that the taco truck he has spent hours researching online has run out of tortillas just as he has arrived.
He’s a child of immigrants who brushes all bummers aside, whether he is experiencing racist attitudes at a sitcom casting call or waiting too long for a bartender to finish assembling an artisanal cocktail. Yet, despite his positivity, Dev seems to think his life requires ennui or existential fretting to be worthwhile. Or, at the very least, it needs these to be a comic exercise in realism.
Dev and his friends (played by Eric Wareheim, Kelvin Yu and Lena Waithe as Arnold, Brian and Denise — or, categorically, a big white dude, an Asian guy and a black lesbian) are highly skilled at conversational sarcasm and hipster indifference. They were brought up in a world drenched in irony and crankiness, but they’re just too darn fuzzy and warm to sustain a negative outlook. The word we landed on when the subject was Zooey Deschanel (of Fox’s “New Girl”) was “adorkable.” “Master of None” is deeply, unabashedly adorkable.
That’s no surprise to anyone who enjoyed Ansari’s antics when he was playing Tom on “Parks and Recreation” — his hyperactive sense of zaniness completely conveys here, as does his relentless good cheer and tweetable paroxysms of delight, much of it foodcentric: “Oooh, that frittata is fluffy as helllll!” he chirps triumphantly. Later, ponderously: “I feel like there should be an app that analyzes your tum and tells you what you want to eat.”
At the same time, “Master of None” partakes in Dev’s generation’s obsession with identity politics. One episode pushes back against Hollywood’s persistent stereotyping of South Asian characters; in other episodes, Dev gets into testy discussions with his female friends about gender discrimination. Most of this is smartly written and agreeably portrayed, but it can also feel as if Ansari knows that comedians must now play a leading role in social discourse and commentary. Our satirists and joke-tellers have become the new pundits — and in “Master of None,” that role can sometimes feel obligatory. Dev and his friends also have a habit of discovering truisms that aren’t so profound: Immigrant parents deserve respect. Old people used to be young and interesting. Discrimination is real. Marriage is difficult.
Still, the studiously easygoing aspect of “Master of None” (even the opening and closing song choices seem scientifically determined to elicit a smile) comes across as an almost revolutionary concept. We watch so much television in which we expect bad things to happen to self-absorbed characters who are subjected to excruciating awkwardness and heartache (“Girls,” “Shameless” “You’re the Worst,” “Orange Is the New Black” — all billed at one time or another as comedies), that it takes several episodes to recognize that those disastrous, humiliating moments aren’t in store here. Even tense scenes in “Master of None” lack a certain anguish, as when Dev’s brief affair with a married woman (“Homeland’s” Claire Danes) is discovered by the woman’s husband (Noah Emmerich of “The Americans”).
As such, the overall effect of “Master of None” is one of fullness and fun. It doesn’t amount to any meaningful hill of beans, but, as I understand it, that’s no longer the point. This seems like a long way of invoking the Seinfeldian concept that “Master of None” is another show about nothing, minus all traces of the inherent distrust and disdain of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.
In search of a simple way to describe “Master of None,” Netflix’s press materials tout Dev’s issues with indecisiveness as the show’s central theme: Should he settle down with his neat new girlfriend, Rachel (Noël Wells), who matches him line for witty line? Does he want to have kids at some point? Is there more to his career than playing the friendly ethnic guy in commercials for Go-Gurt and Garden Depot?
Nothing about Dev’s life strikes me as needing much in the way of upheaval or change. Nevertheless, Dev’s father (played by Ansari’s real-life father, Shoukath Ansari) warns him about the fig tree analogy in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”: You can spend too much time staring at the magnificent tree while trying to decide which of all the attractive figs to pick and eat. Before you know it, the figs will all dry up.
That advice spurs “Master of None” to a somewhat forced climax, as Dev impulsively takes an unexpected plunge. I’m all for it, but I was having such a lovely time watching Dev and Rachel and their friends just hang around and enjoy life. We could all use a show that just wants to chill.
Master of None
(10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.