The first Woody Allen TV show was supposed to be released next year, on Amazon Video, but it would appear another has already beaten the legendary filmmaker to it. Netflix’s newest comedy drama Master of None, starring Aziz Ansari as first-generation Indian-American actor Dev, is strongly reminiscent of Allen’s early work. So strongly, in fact, that Ansari might have revealed himself as the truest heir to Allen’s throne.
With Master of None, Ansari has made a show about a creative, intelligent thirty-something born and raised in New York, in which NYC is integral to his story of life and love—so far, so Woody. Like Allen’s early work, Master of None is peppered with lightly absurd sketches, though like Annie Hall-era Allen the show is also relatable in a slice-of-life way, and most effective in its more dramatic or bittersweet moments. What’s more, like all the invariably Woody Allen-like characters that Allen ever played in his work, Ansari’s Dev hails from a background that positions him as something of an outsider.
Despite the strong ties Dev feels to India, like the strong ties the Woody Allen figure always felt to Judaism, Ansari is a modern man, not always comfortable with his cultural baggage. There’s a sense of pride, a slight defensiveness, as well as a self-effacement and an uncertainty over how to be both progressive and respectfully traditional. The Woody Allen figure was an Orthodox Jew living in liberal New York; Dev meanwhile has extremely modest roots, but lives in the luxury of information-age America. This internal civil war is crucial to Master of None, but not what defines it: as Allen has often sought to scattergun his thoughts and feelings on all kinds of subjects in his work, so Ansari does with his new show.
Similar to Allen in his early work, Aziz Ansari is the writer, director and star of his latest project. He works from a script that’s partly autobiographical (whole bits, like the terrifically uncomfortable scene in which Dev is asked to do a faux-Indian accent in order to win a movie role, are taken directly from Ansari’s former life as a jobbing actor), and that neurotically addresses numerous contemporary concerns. Like Allen’s early films, Master of None is both in tune with the culture of the time and appreciative of great art from the past (a metaphor borrowed from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar plays a decisive part in the first season’s final episode).
No offense to Woody Allen, but we haven’t really had this Allen for a good while. Whereas the Woody Allen of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a mouthpiece for a generation, his recent movies have been nostalgia-thons. Allen is fondly looking backwards literally—he now tends to either make period pieces, like Magic in the Moonlight and Midnight in Paris, or movies based on historical literary works, like Irrational Man (Crime and Punishment) and Blue Jasmine (A Streetcar Named Desire), as his filmmaking style simultaneously becomes more classical.
This lends Allen’s most recent movies their own kind of magic, but they all ,lack the contemporary spark of the Woody Allen of Manhattan, or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. And up until now, nobody has managed to so successfully replicate the feel of those ‘early, funny ones.’
Frances Ha’s Noah Baumbach has come close to emulating early Woody, though even Baumbach’s more accessible output has an acerbic, supercilious edge that’ 70s Allen lacks. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, with its self-deprecating wit, astute life observations and cultural references that presume audience intelligence, is the closest we’ve come to Woody Allen: The Early Years in a long time. Allen and Ansari even share the same flaws—they can both admittedly be irritating, and are so idiosyncratic that they can’t play anything other than themselves. They have their differences, too, for sure: Ansari is a feminist, and that shines through in his writing. Allen… not so much.
Dissimilarities aside, Ansari is still like the younger Woody Allen in all the key ways: funny, flawed, emotionally honest, the imperfect hero in a cosmic farce. He is Woody for the 2010s. Netflix must have noticed the potential, because Ansari has been given immense power here: still only 32, Aziz Ansari has the kind of control on Master of None that even most name comedians can go whole lifetimes without. Like Woody Allen, Ansari’s found success at a young age, and like the young Allen, he should now be forcing others in his profession to consider raising their game.