While I’ve been writing mostly about theater lately, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching lots of TV! Let’s rewind to a great Netflix binge from the end of 2015: Master of None. Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, this quick watch initially seemed a bit unremarkable on the surface, but by the end of the season, it pleasantly surprised me by finding ways to tell story that I haven’t really seen before on television (or, technically, on the internet).
For the most part, each of Master of None‘s ten episodes covered a different topic. Online dating, relationships with parents (Ansari’s character Dev’s parents were charmingly played by the actor’s real life parents), minority representation in the entertainment industry, feminism, ageism, and relationships are all covered in smart, insightful, and often surprising ways. The conceit behind the show is rather simple—Dev is a well-meaning, somewhat naive up-and-coming actor in New York City, best known for his work in a Go-Gurt commercial. Rachel (Noël Wells) is his primary love interest, a quirky music publicist who first appears in the opening scene of the pilot as a one-night stand of Dev’s that quickly becomes complicated by a broken condom and a pharmacy trip. Various friends of Dev’s round out the cast of characters—Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Dev’s go-to partner on his many foodie adventures, Brian (Kelvin Yu), the son of Taiwanese immigrants whom Dev bonds with over their similar family dynamics, and Denise (Lena Waithe), a lesbian who helps Dev keep it real when it comes to matters of dating and dealing with women.
The show also features many surprising and delightful guest stars. I was shocked to see Claire Danes in a very un-Claire Danes-like role that I will not spoil. Noah Emmerich, so outstanding on The Americans, is also in the Danes episode. Another Netflix star, Danielle Brooks of Orange is the New Black, pops up a few times as Dev’s talent agent in scenes that ring incredibly true for anyone who’s ever been involved in the entertainment industry.
While the show certainly relies on individual episode vignettes, there are also a good amount of ongoing storylines. Dev’s minor role in a film called The Sickening, clearly a take on Contagion, is always good for some laughs, and his relationship with Rachel becomes surprisingly nuanced. Honestly, their somewhat unlikely romance was the most pleasant surprise of the series for me. In the pilot, I kind of assumed we would never see Rachel again—she was just a fun glimpse into an awkward anecdote from Dev’s dating life, of which there are many. As she became more of a fully realized character, her relationship with Dev steered clear of most romantic comedy cliches to become a realistically flawed pairing the likes of which we rarely see on television.
For example, when Rachel and Dev initially reconnect after their hook-up mishap, she has a boyfriend. There is still clearly something there between the two, so when the relationship ends, she reaches out to Dev, and he jumps at the chance to impress her. Spoilers ahead! Rather ambitiously, he decides to make their first official date a weekend trip to Nashville. While the grand gesture of romance is impressive, a lot goes wrong on this trip, which makes sense because it is an extremely risky adventure for two people who barely know each other. Dev makes many missteps, some of which straight-up stressed me out to watch, but despite it all, Rachel still likes him.
All of this leads to my favorite episode, the penultimate “Mornings,” a unique twist on a bottle episode that takes place almost exclusively in Dev and Rachel’s apartment, but over the course of almost an entire year. I loved this episode because I felt like I hadn’t seen it before. It’s rare that television offers such a plain, raw, often mundane look inside a pivotal year in a somewhat new relationship. We see Dev and Rachel deal with such issues as attempting to match each other’s levels of cleanliness, dealing with a boring slump in their sex life, and deciding when to introduce each other to their families, all while they’re both dealing with turning points in their careers and lives outside the relationship. It’s an incredibly honest half hour told in an unconventional way, and I loved it. The rest of the series aside, “Mornings” could easily stand on its own as a terrific short or play.
While it has been months since I’ve seen it, I still have been unable to decide how I feel about the somewhat surprising season finale. A part of me really liked it because it was surprising and unexpected and didn’t care about traditional “happy ending” story tropes, but another part of me was a bit saddened and disappointed because I had become rather invested in Dev and Rachel’s relationship. I truly have no idea what season 2, which has been announced to premiere in 2017, will look like—will it take place in Italy? Will Rachel be a character? It’s all very unclear, but I look forward to seeing more of this offbeat little show.