Aziz Ansari is on His Way to Becoming “Master” of the Sitcom

Master of None is not a conventional sitcom. But conventional is not what you would expect from Aziz Ansari, comedian, actor, author, and now showrunner. Ansari expertly utilizes conventional and cliché storylines as a way to examine universal truths. He parodies the stereotypical millennial at the same time he reexamines and reinterprets the classic tropes of sitcoms. Each episode shows the creators penchant for using hyper-realistic dialogue and serious topics to subvert the clichés and conventions of comedy sitcom television. The typical storylines of first date gone wrong or boy reconnects with parents are flipped on their heads and put up for examination by Ansari’s utilization of the humdrum of reality and the intricacies of identity politics. This subversion of well-worn storylines is aided by his clever satire of millennial obsession with technology and fear of missing out (FOMO).

Ansari packs an impressive number of themes into just 22 minutes of TV. Within the context of one light hearted and fast paced episode he covers sacrifice, guilt, the generation gap, and complex communication issues. In the episode entitled “Parents” he tackles many of the intricacies of immigrant narratives without being bogged down by the seriousness of the topic. Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Brian (Kelvin Yu) realize that their knowledge of their parents’ journey to America is severely lacking. When they invite their parents to a dinner to learn more about their story, they end up learning more about themselves.

The real power of the episode comes from the naturalistic portrayal of the parents in the episode. Ansari achieves this by casting his real life parents as his only slightly fictionalized stern yet beleaguered parents. Their obvious lack of acting chops only serves to highlight the gap between Dev and his parents. This gap includes not only the difference in accents, but also highlights the differences in age, culture, and more importantly lived experiences. The clear divide between actor and non-actor is meant to viscerally represent the two worlds the parents and children live in.

The dinner scene perfectly represents the two colliding worlds of the parents and children. Dev tries to ask his mother emotional, Hallmark Channel, Barbara Walters questions in order to elicit the kind of bonding that is common in episodic television. He is instead met with his mother’s curt responses which, while demonstrating excellent comedic timing, do not match Dev’s hopes for a dramatic emotional connection. The dinner devolves from Dev’s preconceived cliché idea to a frank and humorous discussion of the realities of being an immigrant.

The memorable flashback scenes provide a wealth of back story while maintaining the pace of the short episode. Rather than the parents dramatically telling their past in voice over while images flash on the screen, the flashbacks are completely internal to the parents. This not only saves the parents from using nonexistent acting skills, but provides a much more accurate snapshot of their experience. The sepia tone and period music do a much better job than any voice over could possibly do. Ansari’s story telling skills are truly on display with these clever asides.

As I was watching the episode I was surprised by the restraint that Ansari displayed. I would have expected more of the bodacious personality quips and exaggerated characteristics that are his bread and butter in his others shows and his stand-up routines. Instead there was a large dose of reality and even some powerful poetic moments in the show. While audacious for a 22-minute episode this mix of comedy and harsh realty led to a sometimes muddled and mushy tone. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying, I don’t know anyone else that would combine the melancholy and cerebral comedy and reality of Louie CK with the punchlines and zany character work of a Mellissa McCarthy project.

While it’s clear the episode was carefully crafted and pushes new ground for the episodic comedy, fans of Ansari’s other work might be taken aback by this new direction. Without a doubt, the episode deserves the Emmy it received, however it is less a comedy show than witty short film. The expansion of the genre makes it a perfect a perfect fit for the eclectic audience of Netflix.

In the episode “Nashville,” Ansari and his writers take the basic formula of the romantic comedy, trim it down to its basics, and mix it with lifelike witty dialogue. They twist the conventional “first date gone awry” storyline in order to explore the concepts of first date etiquette, technology, and generational gaps. By using the stereotypical boy meet girl, boy creates conflict, boy resolves conflict formula, the show can claim the mantel of the classic love stories that have come before it. However, by fitting this entire narrative into the confines of a first date allows the show to point out the absurdities of both the formula and the unwritten rules of modern dating.

In the episode, Dev takes Rachel on an unusual first date on a weekend trip to Nashville. As they visit different sites around the city they get to know each other and quickly develop a natural comradery and set of inside jokes. The lack of serious conflict in the episode not only increases the realism of the story but also challenges the norms of the Rom Com genre. Even the actual minor conflict, that does eventually arise in the episode, lacks the stereotypical dramatic fight that anchors most rom coms. Instead there is a burning awkwardness as neither Dev or Rachel can fully express their emotions and real selves as they are only on their first date This tension of having 10 dates worth of time spent together while still abiding by first date social rules and etiquette drives the episode which otherwise lacks major conflict.

Things that typically go wrong in a romantic comedy are simply laughed off instead of being over-dramatized. For example, when Dev makes a joke that doesn’t make sense, he simply points out its absurdity instead of beating himself up over it or digging a deeper hole. The show revels in the realistic boring nature of dates when couples make small talk or have silly inside jokes.

In order to pull off this subtle effect of non-conflict and realism the episode has to move along at a very steady and up beat pace. The only thing that keeps the episode on the right side of the fine line it walks with boredom is the excellent pacing of the editing. Each scene is allowed to run just long enough to give us a taste or a quick glance of the feeling of the scene before moving on to the next one. This unconventional editing, establishes the passing of long periods of time as the weekend progresses without drawing attention to the fact that there is no major conflict.

At first the experience of seeing the familiar rom com set ups not lead to any conflict was strange and slightly unnatural. I wasn’t sure if the rejection of the rom com tropes was on purpose or not. It was not until the episode was finished the subtly of the story clicked for me. The bold yet understated choices of Ansari and his team in this episode really show the strength of their creative confidence. They are not afraid to create a show that has more gravitas than is typically awarded a sitcom. They instead draw upon an older tradition of witty verbal sparring from the likes of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall mixed with millennials anxiety and neurosis make this an intellectual and pleasant viewing experience.

The thorough social analysis found in each episode most likely comes from Ansari’s recent experience writing a book entitled Modern Romance. In the book, Ansari draws on his extensive practice with observational comedy to make claims about the state of relationships in modern society. He references people from the audiences of his comedy tours as well as those in focus groups and even online chatrooms. He mixes in with these sources from the vox populi the heavy hitting research of serious academics. By sharing knowledge from both the zeitgeist and academia he increases his ‘love guru’ ethos. So much so that he easily slips in effective (albeit conventional) advice to his readers without seeming preachy. He masterfully employs his unique sense of humor to lighten up and summarize the particularly dense and jargon heavy sociology sections and keep the flow of the book intact.

It is easy to tell that some of the larger issues and trends that Ansari discuses at length in the book are seamlessly utilized in the show to highlight commonly made mistakes. Like a millennial Aesop’s fables, Ansari’s Dev displays many of the actions and characteristic that he warns about in the book. For example, he shows the power of a unique and exciting first date by sending Dev and Rachel on a marathon adventure to Nashville. Similarly, he backs up his claims about the simplicity of the older generation in the book by touching upon the nature of his parents arranged marriage in the show.

Ansari is setting himself up as the Steve Martin of the millennial generation: meaning he too will be play the role of part time comedian and part time renaissance man. His social observations and constant awareness of his position in regards to others serve as a common thread tying together his many roles as writer, actor, comedian, and author. The success both critically and commercially of this season will act as emboldening force for Ansari and his writers, who will undoubtedly push the envelope further in the second season. They will continue to play with the audience’s expectations of sitcoms in order to both surprise and educate in their sophomore season.

The unifying thread throughout the series is Dev’s struggle to overcome his own personality flaws. His never ending quest to find the best thing to do, have, or be often leaves him caught up in his own world and at a distance from the real people around him. His major fear of missing out literally debilitates him from strengthening his relationship with his parents or girlfriend. He is so focused on having cliché experiences with his loved ones that he neglects to really pay attention to their interests and identities. In each episode Dev the man-child learns a little more how to overcome his selfish id.

This formula is not new, however the presentation in this series is. Every episode is not simply a moral learning experience. Dev does not gain a clear life lesson by the end of each episode. Instead, he blunders through the world doing the best that he can. The show allows the complicated, subtle, and sometimes incomplete solution to hang in the air. This highlights Ansari’s drive for realism and his ability to scrutinize the technology fueled neurosis of his generation.

The real, yet comical, struggles of Dev are direct opposite to Ansari’s success at subverting the normal themes of half hour television sitcom. Encounters with parents and first dates have been done countless times on TV. But never with such adherence to the realities of modern life. By co-opting these familiar storylines and injecting his own style, Ansari subverts the conventions of classic TV. This in my opinion indelibly makes Aziz Ansari a master of something, that something being the future of TV.

References:

Ansari, Aziz. “Choices and Options.” Modern Romance. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 123–147.

“Parents.” Master of None, season 1, episode 2, Netflix, 6 Nov. 2015. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80065724?trackId=14170289&tctx=0%2C1%2C911c7bda-d083-4d17-be95-3ccc9d789260-34548128.

“Nashville.” Master of None, season 1, episode 6, Netflix, 6 Nov. 2015. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80065727?trackId=14170289&tctx=0%2C5%2C911c7bda-d083-4d17-be95-3ccc9d789260-34548128

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