Thursday, November 12, 2015

Netflix's Master of None is revolutionary, and not just because it's the first half-hour comedy filmed in pimptastic 2.35:1 (ask your film nerd friend)

The 80-year-old tribute from The Hunger Games's crooning game is on fleek.
The following contains spoilers for the final two episodes of Master of None.

Asian American men have been so badly stereotyped and emasculated by Hollywood (peep the Long Duk Dong catchphrase montage from "Good Morning Orlando," last week's Fresh Off the Boat episode, for a refresher course) that several Asian American male indie filmmakers have worked to counteract those stereotypes by casting either themselves or much more polished Asian actors as romantic leads, one of many kinds of roles Asian American men only rarely get to play outside the indie world. But to be honest, even though it's nice to see these directors defying stereotypes, too many of these indie flicks--or more commonly these days, YouTube shows--have turned out to be underwhelming or banal in execution. (A rare example of an indie flick with an Asian American guy as a romantic lead that isn't so underwhelming as a movie is 2011's struggling musician comedy Surrogate Valentine, and although it was directed by a white guy, Dave Boyle, it's thoroughly suffused with the creative voice of Surrogate Valentine star and co-writer Goh Nakamura.)

It's not surprising that the similarly conscious-about-race Aziz Ansari and his fellow Parks and Recreation colleague, writer Alan Yang, the creators of Netflix's remarkable new half-hour comedy Master of None, chose to open their show's very first episode with the ultimate in "Hey, I have sex too! I ain't no emasculated dork like how Hollywood likes to portray me!" moments during stories told from Asian American males' perspectives. Master of None's first glimpse of TV commercial actor Dev Shah, Ansari's alter ego, is Dev in the middle of banging Rachel (former SNL featured player Noël Wells), the record label publicist who will become Dev's permanent love interest later on in the season. The opening scene is the first of many figurative middle fingers Ansari and Yang, whose counterpart on the show is Kelvin Yu's Brian, satisfyingly deliver throughout the show to racist power players from Hollywood who either contribute to marginalizing Asian Americans, whether they're Indian or, in the case of Yang and Yu, Taiwanese, or continue to be in doubt about giving them screen roles like "one of the jobs Bradley Cooper's characters do in movies," as Dev says at one point.


But because Ansari isn't such a vain comedy star--you can tell how much vanity a male comedy star has by how often he gets the staff writers to write shirtless bedroom scenes for him, like the bizarre amount of shirtless bedroom scenes that were written for the late Richard Jeni during his short-lived '90s sitcom Platypus Man--Ansari amusingly cuts short his own first-ever on-screen moment of athletic, TV-MA-rated (but without any nudity) lovemaking. He has his own character's condom suddenly break.

The broken condom scare leads to both frantic Googling of fun facts about pre-ejaculate and an emergency Uber ride for both Dev and Rachel to the nearest pharmacy for a Plan B pill and--because Dev is as passionate a foodie/drinkie as Ansari--an irresistible bottle of Martinelli's apple juice. The mishap perfectly kicks off a series of anxieties Dev experiences about children (he doesn't completely hate them, but like Ansari, he doesn't plan on having any), marriage (again, like with Ansari, the idea of it intimidates Dev), texting etiquette (another subject Ansari has been preoccupied with in his stand-up act), accepting certain acting roles that would pay well but could also cause him to be labeled an "Uncle Taj" and various other life choices.



Master of None--which gets its title from a 2006 Beach House song about a person who hops from fuckbuddy to fuckbuddy but winds up being lonely (the tune is featured at the end of the third episode, "Hot Ticket")--is Ansari's first big endeavor into auteurist TV (he also directed two of the 10 episodes that Netflix dropped all at once last Friday). The show interestingly structures itself as a series of mini-movies--hence the "Master of None Presents" logo during the main titles of each episode--and breaks away from both the joke machine rhythms of network TV ("Alan and I didn't want the show to be so cut-y. Sometimes I'd watch Parks and it's so fast-paced," said Ansari to the A.V. Club) and the studio set-bound nature of many network sitcoms like Parks.

Instead, it embraces the commercial-free pacing of Netflix and favors long single takes during street conversations or hallway exchanges like Dev's amusing exchange with his friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) about the frustration of being unable to tell if Eminem's 8 Mile theme "Lose Yourself" is being rapped from the point of view of Em or his 8 Mile alter ego B-Rabbit ("[Linklater] has been a huge influence on me, and he has been for a few years," said Ansari in that same A.V. Club interview, while discussing his love for the long takes during Linklater's Before trilogy). The show also favors location shooting in New York (and, for one episode, Nashville) and, in what has to be a first for a half-hour comedy, cinematography shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That's the same aspect ratio all the Star Wars movies and Bond flicks (except Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) are filmed in.

Master of None cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard makes beautiful use of the ultra-widescreen frame. At first, the Scope aspect ratio seems like a bizarre choice for a half-hour comedy. But when Schwartzbard continually composes shots as clever and playful as the one where Brian and his laconic immigrant dad Peter (Clem Cheung) finally bond while reading The Economist, but due to Peter's Ron Swanson-like discomfort with expressing any kind of emotion, they're sitting far apart and at the edges of the frame rather than shoulder to shoulder (or when Schwartzbard sometimes composes shots that are just plain gorgeous), the aspect ratio suits the show.











Schwartzbard's cinematography game is on fleek as well. If only Mr. Robot could be shot in 2.35:1 like this.

Master of None is also Ansari's first show where he plays the lead role. Sure, as an actor, he's not quite Shahrukh Khan, but at least this stand-up's acting during Master of None isn't cringeworthy like Gabe Kaplan's stilted acting during Welcome Back, Kotter, Jerry Seinfeld's similarly stilted acting during Seinfeld or Chris Rock's non-comedic and unconvincing guest appearance as a hardened criminal on Empire earlier this season. The complaints about Ansari's acting over in the A.V. Club's comments section are getting annoying, because on Master of None, the way the acting has been directed (by the likes of Wareheim, Lynn Shelton and The Spectacular Now's James Ponsoldt) to be subdued and not so broad--in comparison to other Netflix half-hour comedies like the more broadly played, originally-produced-for-NBC Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or the Disney Channel sitcom-style Richie Rich--perfectly suits Master of None's naturalistic, not-so-theatrical-like-a-multi-cam-sitcom style, plus Ansari acts rings around Kaplan and Seinfeld.

Ansari's character on Master of None is considerably more mature than previous Ansari characters like Dr. Ed Dhandapani (the lazy intern Ansari played for one season on Scrubs), the fictional, Hot 97 air horn-wielding comedian known as Raaaandy and, of course, douchey wanna-be entrepreneur Tom Haverford (but not without a bit of Tom's childlike enthusiasm for what Tom would refer to as "long-ass rice"). Dev is a struggling New York actor trying to navigate his way through a complicated industry that sees Indians as "not the ones doing the main stuff--we're not fucking the girls and all that stuff" and then entices Indians with making some "Friends money" but limits their options of making that kind of money to the same old unfulfilling roles of cab drivers, scientists and IT guys. He's also trying to navigate his way through a complicated point in life when society pressures 30-somethings like himself and myself--as well as 40-somethings like another stand-up who, like Ansari, has turned the refusal to have kids into an enjoyable part of her material, Jen Kirkman--to settle down and raise children, but we're adamant about not wanting children.

Fortunately, Master of None doesn't turn out to be underwhelming or banal in execution like so many indie flicks that have similarly centered on Asian American guys who are trying to figure out either relationships with significant others or their place in the world (the major difference between Master of None and those inferior projects?: Ansari has, in addition to his own writing, a bunch of very good comedy writers at his disposal, whether it's Yang, whose signature Parks writing credit is the classic episode where Tom unveils DJ Roomba, or the late Harris Wittels, whose most notable contribution to Master of None was the "Lose Yourself" scene). Here's where Master of None becomes revolutionary, and it's also what distinguishes it from the shows it has been compared to, particularly Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm and other auteurist half-hour comedies: it's tackling the issue of Asian American representation, as well as the issue of grappling with the privilege that comes with being the well-off children of Asian immigrants who experienced not-so-well-off lives before they had kids (not to mention the issues of misogyny, ageism and commitment-phobia), but it does so in a sharp and thankfully humorous way that never feels like Very Special Episode territory, and--like much of Ansari's stand-up material--it feels honest.

"Our cast: Noel Wells, Eric Wareheim, Kelvin Yu, Lena Waithe, my parents - rehearsed a lot with me and helped refine our dialogue," tweeted Ansari earlier this week. In regards to just Wells, Ansari also tweeted, "She's fantastic and really helped shape the Rachel character through a lot of rehearsals." That explains why, as Rachel, Wells is playing a recognizable human being and a well-rounded character--instead of the clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl who was James Kyson's love interest during one of those aforementioned underwhelming indie flicks, 2006's Asian Stories, or some overly twee and completely artificial idea of a human being like the kinds of characters Ansari's old Scrubs co-star Zach Braff has become derided for (as a director) by the likes of none other than Master of None staff writer Joe Mande.


If Master of None could be summed up in just one word, it would be honesty. Whether or not you find some of the acting on Master of None to be off-putting, there's no denying that the show's dialogue never feels artificial, network TV-ish or screenwriter-y like Aaron Sorkin at his flibbertigibbetiest. "Mornings," the season's penultimate episode, contains a funny moment where a post-coital Dev and Rachel make fun of different kinds of sex noises. The only other time I've encountered dialogue like that is the bedsheet scene from the 1960 François Truffaut flick Shoot the Piano Player: Charles Aznavour is naked with a hot prostitute, and he jokes--and this, by the way, is 50 years before TV Tropes would post a whole page about it--that she should pull the sheet over her chest because that's how they do it in the movies.



But my favorite examples of the show's naturalistic dialogue have to be the dialogue about race and Hollywood's "There can be one, but there can't be two" rule regarding cast members of color during the standout episode "Indians on TV" and the exchanges between Dev and Brian about the culture clashes they experience with their immigrant parents and why their parents are the way they are. Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, the non-actor parents of both Ansari and his brother Aniz, a Master of None staff writer (you might remember Mr. and Mrs. Ansari from the photo Kanye West took with Aziz and his parents), appear on Master of None as Dev's parents, and I like how instead of doing the typical sitcom move of picking someone like Bangladeshi comedian Gerry Bednob to play his dad Ramesh, Ansari simply cast his own dad. His non-actoriness is clearly evident in his scenes with his wife and son, but I've become a fan of the bizarre and distinctive way Ansari's dad punctuates every other sentence with "man." The conversations during "Indians on TV" and "Parents" are all conversations I've either heard before in real life or actually experienced, but I've never heard these conversations before on a scripted show, and they're wonderful to hear.

In "Indians on TV," Ravi Patel guest-stars as Ravi, another Indian actor Dev frequently runs into at auditions because they're always auditioning for the same paltry Indian roles. Patel is turning into the Indian Tony Danza. Both his characters on Master of None and Fox's Grandfathered are named Ravi. Patel is also neck and neck with Wells as the best actor out of all the actors who play Dev's 30s-ish friends, simply for the crazed look in his eyes while he's stress-eating.

Ravi is stress-eating during a scene that's the best joke in "Indians on TV": Dev is bringing up to Ravi the "There can't be two" rule, but in another figurative--and revolutionary--middle finger Ansari and Yang deliver to the racist side of Hollywood, "There can't be two" is being discussed during a scene between not two but three brown actors, the type of scene that, like Ansari said about many of the other scenes in "Indians on TV" when he and Yang were interviewed on Fresh Air, could not have been written (or made possible) by a white person. The three Indian American guys are a nifty range of different personalities too, as opposed to the "Wunza fobby eccentric, wunza totally assimilated party pooper!" dynamic that gets pitched to Dev in the form of a lame-sounding Perfect Strangers reboot later in the episode: Dev is a confident jokester who sometimes makes bad decisions, Ravi is a less confident type who constantly makes bad decisions and Ravi's workout-obsessed actor friend Anush (Gerrard Lobo) is a chiseled lunkhead. Lobo also gets to deliver the best final punchline out of all the punchlines that close out some of the episodes, and his innocent delivery nicely sells both the sadness and hilarity of the closing line.

An earlier chat in "Indians on TV" between Dev and Ravi about whether or not it's offensive to play a character with an Indian accent brought back for me memories of a Korean American friend in college. She once told me how much she disliked Margaret Cho's stand-up routines about her mom because she felt like Cho was ridiculing Korean accents whenever she would do her mom's voice. I wouldn't be surprised if she rolled her eyes during the cringeworthy moments in Cho's concert films whenever Cho's white fans would be interviewed outside the theater and those white fans would start imitating Cho's mom. That's such a white thing to do. It's whiter than someone watching on the phone a Pomplamousse cover of an R&B joint while in the middle of a pumpkin spice latte colonic.

I've had these conversations with other Filipinos before: whenever we entertain each other by doing our parents' Filipino accents, is it okay to do that? Or do we end up turning into the same white comedians we despise: ignorant folks who would ridicule our parents' accents in a heartbeat and without thinking twice, just like Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who, by the way, is actually half-Asian, when he's seen imitating Indian convenience store clerks in a moldy Saved by the Bell clip that will make you hate Saved by the Bell even more during the brilliantly edited Indian stereotype montage that opens "Indians on TV," or like Ashton Kutcher in his brownface Popchips commercial, which also appears in the montage?

Like any good writer, Ansari and Yang thankfully resist the urge to come up with an answer to these sorts of questions or the urge to tie everything up in some stilted and inauthentic bit of Hollywood-style speechifying, although in their montage of stereotypes (Ansari has mentioned that the montage was originally longer and "we trimmed it down cause it dragged"), they missed one. He interestingly hovers over the Master of None thumbnails in Netflix searches like a ghost in brownface who won't leave Ansari and the Indian American community alone.


If Master of None gets renewed for a second season, I wonder if Ansari and Yang will place Dev in a situation where he encounters a white actor who, like Dana Carvey and "the Kutch," played one of these Indian caricatures Ansari didn't become offended by until he was an adult. Ansari's approach to comedy has interestingly become more journalistic in recent years. In a piece Ansari contributed to the New York Times about both the lack of juicy roles for Asian Americans and getting the chance to talk to Fisher Stevens about his role as an Indian caricature in the two Short Circuit movies--Short Circuit 2 becomes a terrific running joke during "Indians on TV"--Ansari recalls wanting to find out why a white actor was cast as an Indian student in The Social Network and why Chiwetel Ejiofor landed a role that was originally Indian in Ridley Scott's adaptation of The Martian. "My efforts to get responses from people who made these decisions were unsuccessful," wrote Ansari. That sentence doesn't sound like something a typical stand-up would say. That sounds more like a journalist. The journalistic and almost childlike curiosity that suffuses Ansari's stand-up material and his writing--it's embodied on Master of None by Dev's willingness to constantly step outside his comfort zone--also distinguishes Master of None from other auteurist half-hour comedies. And it leads to a second word, if I had to sum up Master of None in one other word besides honesty: humanism.

"Old People," another standout Master of None episode, arose from Ansari actually interviewing older people in retirement homes as part of his research for Modern Romance, the book he co-authored with sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Rachel introduces Dev to her Grandma Carol (Lynn Cohen), and instead of the racist old bat both Dev and we the audience expect Grandma Carol to be, Dev finds a new friend in Grandma Carol and helps bust her out of the retirement home after she tells him how much she hates staying there. In the same way we hear dialogue from Indian American actors that they've never delivered before on network sitcoms or dialogue that women only occasionally deliver on sitcoms about having to put up with being stalked on the street or leered at creepily in comments sections--it's the subject of the episode "Ladies and Gentlemen," which is credited to writers Sarah Peters and Zoe Jarman, a former Mindy Project cast member--we get to know and understand Grandma Carol's point of view, and Cohen reportedly was overjoyed to be given humorous grandma material that didn't call for her character to do slapstick or perform "Rapper's Delight" and stemmed from the amount of talking and research Ansari did with senior citizens. "That's kind of the theme of the show overall: Instead of yelling your opinion, or telling people to shut up, or engaging in this clickbait-internet culture, have a dialogue with someone and ask people questions and listen to what they have to say," said Ansari to the A.V. Club.

Master of None is a rare auteurist half-hour comedy that's not about a misanthrope or a loudmouth who holds on to an angry worldview that's constantly glorified by the show. The humanism of Master of None (and, from 2009 to 2015, Parks as well) shines through in the way Master of None revolves around someone who wants to grow as a person and step outside that aforementioned comfort zone to better understand other people's points of view, even in something as small as Dev asking his black lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe, who's a real find, and I'm not surprised that the show's casting director, comedy casting genius Allison Jones, was instrumental in casting her) to school him on the difference between what she calls "redbone" ladies and "caramel" ladies.

But in keeping with its honest approach, the show nicely has Dev slip up along the way. For instance, the season ends with Dev and Rachel splitting up due to Dev's ambivalence about marriage and Rachel's desire to pursue her lifelong dreams before "the window" to do so closes ("Relationships are hard, especially when you've been in them for a while. Things get very complicated and sticky, so we wanted to show these characters going through that stuff and show it getting messy and hard. That feels more real and more relatable to me," said Ansari about the final two episodes). But a more interesting example of Dev's slip-ups takes place earlier in "Ladies and Gentlemen." Even after Dev becomes able to see things from his badly wronged female friends' points of view and helps them out with their problems with sexist folks, he still has difficulty understanding why Rachel becomes upset about a male TV commercial director who shook hands with only the men at Dev and Rachel's table in a bar and acted as if none of the women at their table exist. A lesser version of this show would make Dev out to be an immaculate human being most of the time, or it would turn extremely touchy-feely and be unable to take its humanism and make it funny. Or that lesser version would succumb to notes from fidgety network TV execs and clumsily force humor into moments where that humor wouldn't work. Fortunately, none of those things happen during Master of None.

For a show with a title that flat-out says its central character is less than masterly, Master of None is masterful in every way.



***

"Alright, honky, let's go tonk": How about that Master of None soundtrack?


In 2011, E.J. Dickson, who was frustrated with the clichés of post-Royal Tenenbaums indie movies like Garden State, said over at Nerve.com, "Rather than letting the soundtrack underscore the emotional arc of the film, directors started using Smiths tunes to define their characters and the more accessible tracks off Lou Reed's solo albums to move the plot forward. This makes watching Away We Go feel like a Grey's Anatomy montage, or an extended version of an Alexi Murdoch music video." Yep, Grey's Anatomy indie pop montages are indeed on the irritating side, with moody Rescue Me indie pop montages coming in a close second.

Instead of relying too much on indie pop montages or opting for wall-to-wall existing songs a la Scorsese wanna-bes, Master of None--whose most prominent female character works in the music industry and had first bonded with Dev over their mutual love for the Buzzcocks--is smart about the way it uses music. It does so judiciously and reserves its eclectic array of existing songs for the opening and closing credits or for diegetic use during conversational scenes.

I wonder why Ansari and music supervisors Zach Cowie and Kerri Drootin chose the 1989 Julee Cruise song "Falling"--which skyrocketed to international fame a year later when "Falling" composers Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch repurposed it as the Twin Peaks main title theme--and not "Lose Yourself" as the source cue during Dev and Arnold's "Lose Yourself" restaurant hallway conversation. Maybe Ansari, Cowie and Drootin weren't able to clear "Lose Yourself." But "Falling" makes perfect sense when you remember that the "Lose Yourself" conversation is about the confusion caused by Eminem's two identities--the off-screen Em and his B-Rabbit character--somehow being merged during the 8 Mile theme, and "Falling" was the main theme for a show about a similar dichotomy, the dichotomy of small-town idyllicism and underlying evil.

Relegating existing songs to mostly source cues at restaurants, bars or parties is a practice Ansari clearly modeled after The Wire, one of his favorite shows. The Wire became notable for recruiting score composer Blake Leyh to write only one original score cue--the end title instrumental known as "The Fall," which can be heard on "AFOS Prime" and the AFOS morning block "Beat Box"--and enacting a strict rule of using music only when it's diegetic (the music montages that concluded each of The Wire's season finales were rare exceptions where The Wire broke its own rule).




Composers Joe Wong and Didier Leplae's scoring work on Master of None isn't particularly memorable, but like a lot of effective film and TV scores, it's wisely unobtrusive. The real stars of the show, soundtrack-wise, are mix show DJ favorites like Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse" and Mark Morrison's 1996 R&B hit "Return of the Mack," "maybe the most amazing song that's ever been created," and atypical-for-a-half-hour-comedy tunes like the Equatics' "Merry Go Round," Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's "Je t'aime... moi non plus" and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," which are terrific picks and also happen to be Ansari's personal favorite tunes. During the season finale's end credits, the 1979 Sparks song "Tryouts for the Human Race," a tune told from the point of view of sperm, is an intriguing callback to the season's very first scene, the broken condom scare. It makes me wonder--and I hope this isn't true because it would be too soapy for Master of None--if the end-credits placement of "Tryouts for the Human Race" is a hint that Rachel, who moved to Japan, is preggers.

But the existing songs that especially caught my ears during Master of None--and that's mainly due to the film and TV score cues I put into rotation on AFOS--were a few Tamil and Hindi movie themes and the selections from John Carpenter's Halloween score during the shots where Diana (Condola Rashad), Dev's co-star from a hardware store commercial, is being followed on the street by a creepy jerk in "Ladies and Gentlemen." A lesser show would have resorted to John Williams' overused Jaws theme or a Jaws soundalike for Diana's ominous nighttime walk home. An equally noteworthy movie theme that Master of None makes use of is Asha Bhosle's funky "Jab Chaye Mera Jadoo" (from the 1980 Hindi movie Lootmaar) during the "Indians on TV" closing credits.



Fuck the hankering for an official Master of None soundtrack album. For various reasons--like clearance issues--an album wouldn't be able to contain all the most outstanding musical picks on the show. The five-hour-plus Master of None Spotify playlist, which must have been curated by a staffer from the show and was tweeted by Ansari, is even better than an album.
















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