In his 2012 stand-up special, Aziz Ansari jokes that Jay Z is so smooth that he uses banana peels to get around instead of slipping on them.
“He can’t comprehend the levels of unsmoothness that go on with me,” he says.
It’s ironic looking back on that bit now because the first word that comes to mind after watching the premiere of Ansari’s new Netflix series Master of None is “smooth.” The opening episode is a confident and polished piece of work—both the culmination of Ansari’s rise to the top of the stand-up world and a well-deserved spotlight for an actor who has long been relegated to supporting roles. His show, co-created with Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang, feels both familiar and fresh all at once.
There are aspects of Master of None that we’ve seen before: a thirtysomething single man who hasn’t settled down yet, friends with kids who are secretly miserable, and, of course, New York City. But Ansari brings a quiet charm to a role that could have easily been more rote. This is a toned-down Ansari with only a few hints of Raaaaaaaandy and Tom Haverford, and one who knows how to manage his natural charisma.
After six years of Park and Recreation, Ansari is the sort of performer who can make you smile just by looking at him. There’s something about that slight hint of a grin that’s irresistible, delicious even. He’s still inherently pleasurable to watch here, but he’s also in a show that lands a lot closer to Louie’s mood than it does to the more cartoonish emotional landscape of Pawnee. And that requires restraint and nuance.
If there was any doubt that the Ansari who leaps around and sings “Treat yourself 2011!” can pull off restraint and nuance, Master of None should put it to rest.
Case in point: In the episode’s opening scene, Ansari’s character Dev lights up when he spots Martinelli’s apple juice at the pharmacy while he and his date are purchasing Plan B to remedy a broken condom situation. “You never had Martinelli’s apple juice?” he asks, excitedly. It’s a moment that he could have played Tom-Haverford-broad with a childish, big-eyed smile, but Ansari contains his energy here, plunking the bottles down on the counter with just a hint of showmanship and self-satisfaction.
There are still sections of this opener, like an early conversation Dev has with his white guy friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and his African-American lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe), that feel like excuses to shoehorn some stand-up material into the show. Without knowing that Dev is an actor right away, his gregariousness feels abruptly introduced, but the show quickly and mercifully moves on to more narrative-driven material.
“Plan B” is a fairly standard sitcom episode: A single guy ponders the married-with-children life by babysitting his friend’s kids and ends up exhausted. But it brushes up against brilliance enough times to make it worthwhile to take that particular trip again. For instance, Dev’s two polar opposite visions of his own future with kids, one taking place in an idyllic 1940s setting, and the other filmed in horrifying 28 Days Later fast-motion, give the episode some welcome surreal interludes.
Most importantly, Dev isn’t your standard unattached male stereotype. As he tends to Grant and Lila, his friend Amanda’s kids, his character comes into clearer focus.
Many shows would go the complete buffoon route with a single guy watching his friend’s kids but Master of None hits the right balance between allowing Dev to be uncomfortable but still capable. Yes, he tries to make a woman he doesn’t know accompany Lila into a single-stall bathroom on his behalf but he buckles down and does it (even if he stands in the corner, covers his ears, and makes a weird buzzing noise while he waits for her to wrap up).
There are moments where the show feints at an easier route, like Dev almost losing Grant in the grocery store, but Grant suddenly reappears, Dev deals with his misbehavior (paying for the freezer full of frozen waffles Grant contaminated) and the writers spare us the pain of yet another “You lost my kid!” confrontation.
Dev is wary of growing up, but we can also sense that he is seriously and deeply considering it. This depiction of a single thirtysomething feels much more deliberate, realistic, and, frankly, less insulting to men in his position than past comedies.
At the end of the episode, the kids present Dev with a disgusting homemade sandwich just as he is about to bite into a chicken parm sub, and he briefly considers humoring them before opting for the “chicky parm.” His character still has room to grow, as does this promising show.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.