A Binge Watch: Master Of None

I've been hesitant to watch Master Of None - mostly because I found the first few episodes either boring or so relatable it made me cringe, partially because I'm always told I look and act like Aziz Ansari and want to avoid any association with him. "I am an individual!" I tell myself, like an angsty middle child, while I check every box for generic undergraduate philosophy student and write my blog posts about the necessity of an Aristotelian approach to literature. The truth is, I not only look like Aziz Ansari, but I also share many interests with him and have a similar world view. I can't run away from it. But I tried, anyway! It's scary to watch content created by people I relate too. What ends up happenings I see what I don't like about them, and it brings to light what I don't like about myself.

Master Of None is the perfect show for that. It's is centered around a struggling young actor named Dev (played by Aziz Ansari). I say "struggling" in a qualified sense. It's not one of those plots about a boy who moves to New York with nothing but a dream, and after a storm of hard knocks finally lands the gig of a lifetime and skyrockets to fame. Really, Dev is more successful than most actors. He gets consistent work shooting commercials, has a nice apartment, and can afford to go out drinking and eating with his friends A LOT. Most of the show happens in situations which reacquire spending money, leading me to believe Dev has money. So, the show already isn't really about his career. It can't be. There's not a strong line of tension in that aspect of the show.

Really, there's not a consistent line of tension in most of the show. Every episode is largely self-contained, although later episodes do pull from previous ones. But, the conflict at the start of each episode is beautifully introduced. There's a short scene at the beginning of each episode to present what is either the conflict itself or the introduction of the conflict, followed by a song that captures the tone of the episode perfectly, and a title sequence that explicitly states the conflict as the title of the episode. I have not clicked the skip intro button once because of how elegant this introduction is. I've sat through every black screen to read the title of the episode and listen to the song. In most shows, the title sequence is there for branding. In Master Of None, the title sequence serves a purpose in storytelling, and does it well!

The problem is that line of tension again... A line of tension is when the actions of a character or characters have consequences which are difficult to predict but important to the story, done in the right way it keeps the audience interested in a main action of the show. In order for a writer to create a line of tension, they must have an understanding of human action and, more importantly, human experience. A writer must know why people do the things they do, and why those things matter. Without that knowledge, there is no line of tension, there is just one action and then another. The line of tension is what holds a story together. So, what happens when a story doesn't have it? It falls apart.

But Master Of None doesn't fall apart - or it hasn't yet. Dev was an interesting enough character with a complicated enough life that his separated actions could still keep audiences curious. But those actions were limited. Religion had one episode, Indians On TV had another. Important elements of the human experience were separated, and that stops any plot from becoming very deep. This is because the human experience is multilayered. No human being has one box for religion stored away, another box for social and cultural struggles, and another one for family. These are all tied together for us very intimately. A great story makes sense of these things together, not separates them to talk about one at a time.

Does that mean television has to do this? Well, no... It's the sort of thing which is mostly impossible for sitcoms to do. But Master Of None isn't a sitcom, and it also had a great opportunity to take in the whole human experience. This is my key frustration with the show: romance keeps being brought up, but never totally tied in. Throughout the show, women are most of what Dev is most concerned with. Often times, the show ends up making it seem like everything is for the sake of Dev's love life. This is especially true for Season 1, but still very present in Season 2. Every one of Dev's friends seems to only be there so Dev can talk to about his love life with. Sure, one of the first episodes is about Dev and Brian bonding because of their parents, but after that, you don't discover anything about his friends for a while - unless it's in reference to their love lives, but even then there's a subplot of Dev's love life. Great shows don't do this. Shows like Breaking Bad or even The Walking Dead keep tying together in the wholeness of the characters life because they carry out a major conflict and have different actions feeding into that big conflict. Master Of None could do this, but it keeps getting too distracted by romance.

Romance doesn't have to be a distraction. It's a great vehicle for discussing other topics and bringing them to light. The problem is, it's never used that way. Romance is only used as a cute feeling Dev shares with a girl sometimes. Religion is only used as a thing his parents did. Race is only used as a characteristic which causes struggle. The show continues to present situations where Dev can tie these things together so that he can make sense of something bigger than himself. It would also add a line of tension for the whole show, and make the plot feel more like a plot and less like a list of actions.

On the other hand, not having a constant line of tension seems to be the point of the show. There's a dating app episode in Season 2 which is just a montage of crappy dates Dev goes on - and it does a great job of describing what a crappy date looks like. Later, there's a red balloon episode that follows the lives of random New Yorkers who are just going about their lives. The episode ties together at the end with everyone random person sitting in a theatre watching the same movie. The plot of the show behaves like nothing matters; like we are all just paper bags drifting in the wind and Katy Perry was wrong about fireworks. But it keeps begging for things to matter! Dev keeps looking for love, resenting heart breaks, trying to feel more fulfilled in his career, and keeping tabs on his friends and family. The episode keeps reminding you about color, gender, income disparity, and presenting these things as something important, but then denies their importance by refusing to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture. The themes it touches on beg for something greater, but, plotwise, it refuses to acknowledge that there is such a thing.

Alright, though... The show is great. Aziz Ansari is a great actor, and so are Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe, Kevin Yu, the rest. The episodes are enjoyable and funny, the camera work is immersive, the colors are pleasant, the music is incredible! But there's something empty about the plot and the arrangement of the episodes make it feel like the empty parts of the plot will never be filled. I can comfortably recommend it, but I can't say it's incredible. It's not a continuation of the golden era of TV we've seen in recent years. There's something incredibly childish about separating conflicts the way Master Of None does; like they're their own little things that have no weight on each other.

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And the worst part is I'm no better. My only take away from the failures of Master Of None is that I can't be the kid who thinks he can ignore one aspect of his life and focus on another. Great writers know the wholeness of the human experience. Why? Well, because it's human, but also because it's the grown-up thing to do. I don't want to like this show, because I know I need to grow up.

Enjoy your week,

-J. Hector Guardiola


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