‘Master of None’ is a show of charming comedic insight and of delicately formed pathos, yet the brilliance of the show comes from its willingness to toy with the audience’s sense of what is familiar and place it in a new and unexpected light.
This Netflix original, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, could be watched for its warming humour alone. Endearing characters find themselves caught up in the struggles of everyday life in stunning apartments and high-end restaurants. The lead, Dev Shah, is a 30-year-old New Yorker trying to advance his acting career whilst also wrestling with the modern world of dating. This is all perfectly believable and relatable, so why is the simple act of him pulling out his phone so jolting to watch?
The regular occurrence of a character checking their phone should be a familiar sight to a contemporary audience. However, there is something unchartered, something peculiar about seeing this happening casually and frequently on-screen. Season one opens with Dev and the not-yet-named Rachel realising that their condom has broken and ‘googling’ the risk of pregnancy. Phones are reached for and their faces become pinched by a familiar blue glow as speech momentarily falls to silence. The bedroom is dimly lit and the only light sources are the upward pointing screens as the audience is unapologetically asked to watch two people watching their phones. What is so normal in our own lives takes on some weird alien quality when placed at the centre of a shot. This shifting sense of what we recognise and yet now see as foreign moves the audience between the observed and the observer and begins to distort the viewer’s process of recognition.
This show pushes us to see the familiar in the alien and the surprising in the known, to realise that ours is another in the long list of untold stories and that despite this, we should never stop watching.
The unsettling act of being surprised by something familiar testifies to the show’s grasp of reality. This is typified in a scene where Dev shares a taxi home with a woman for whom he has strong yet unreciprocated feelings for. The cab reaches her stop and she gets out. Rather than the episode ending there, the camera remains in a fixed position facing Dev and the now empty passenger seat. Two very long shots from this angle along to the tune of ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ by Soft Cell plays out the last three minutes of the episode, interrupted only by a brief shot of his phone. Dev does nothing of note: looking restlessly out the window and around the cab that takes on the quality of a desolate stage set. Aziz Ansari’s performance as Dev evokes a painfully relatable sorrow; however, we do not expect to linger on it for the entirety of his ride home. Real life is like this: real life doesn’t end as the woman closes the door, real life has to go home and change and brush teeth and try to fall asleep. It is this reality that ‘Master of None’ has tapped into, and yet it is a truth that plays with the oddity of it being revealed.
The show toys with familiarity and unfamiliarity through other techniques. The entirety of the first episode of season two is shot in black and white, and an eight minute sequence in the season two episode ‘New York, I Love You’ is completely silent in line with the lead character of the story being deaf. Recognisable aspects of everyday life, such as losing one’s phone or worrying about one’s sex life, become framed in the unfamiliar and thus the show troubles our preconceptions about the portrayal of real life.
By unsettling what the audience might recognise as familiar, the show brings its stories into an equal light, no matter what the story and no matter what the audience. Episodes such as ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and ‘Indians on TV’ are fragments from the lives of various characters that expose certain social and cultural injustices, hardships, and day-to-day proceedings. I personally related to some of these stories (women being wary of walking home alone at night) and some were objectively alien to me (the use of brown make-up to falsify Indian actors on TV). However, having had my sense of the familiar constantly questioned, each story took on a new and deeper significance and relevance. One cannot escape the sense that what may not be familiar to us will be all too familiar to someone else, and that huge events to us become far off anecdotes to others. All stories in the show are thus given equal weighting, equal significance to us, whether we realise it or not. This show pushes us to see the familiar in the alien and the surprising in the known, to realise that ours is another in the long list of untold stories and that despite this, we should never stop watching.