Writing your own show allows for you to tell the story you want to tell. You get to create the character that you’ve never got to play. You get to play to your strengths and make yourself look good in the process. In Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari had to pepper quirks and storylines that were similar to his life experiences into the script. In his creation, Master of None, there is no light peppering. It is a full on pepper spray of personal experiences, interests and philosophies.
As we learned from Project Greenlight last week, there are other problems in storytelling besides creating genuine stories. You also have to execute the vision you set out to create. Because all ten episodes were shown on Netflix, Ansari removed the constraints of having to work with the traditional network models. There are things you can do on Netflix that won’t fly on the major networks. In this season of thankfulness, I’m thankful that Ansari’s story was told through a huge Netflix drop. His story is best suited for setups that allow for him to be as personal as possible. Without this the story would be changed for the worse.
Netflix Change #1: Your story, Your wheelhouse
Through his standup routine and his book, Modern Romance, Ansari demonstrates that he feels comfortable dissecting and analyzing relationships. Ansari didn’t have to put out a book that feels like the most interesting college lecture on Sociology, but he did. His book could have been more similar to Mindy Kaling’s, Tina Fey’s or Amy Poehler’s. Those books were best sellers. Modern Romance was a gamble that paid off. There is research. There are numbers. There is even actual science!
As you watch Master of None, you can see some of the lessons learned from Modern Romance. In the book, Ansari talks about the different misconceptions that people have about dating. There is the “Rule of Waiting” till you text someone back, to show that you are “busy” and “calm, cool and collected.” Modern Romance explains this phenomena and Master of None shows what this looks like on screen.
Ansari has his sweet spot. Jokes about relationship, food and old-school rappers are all in his wheelhouse. There are times in the show that you feel like the bit could fit perfectly in Aziz’s next special on comedy central. There are times when you think parts of the script are actual dialogue from interviews from Aziz’s Modern Romance. The show feels like it is right in Aziz’s alley and I’m not sure if network TV would afford him that luxury.
Netflix Change #2: You can get rid of Kentucky
Ansari’s character, Dev, finally lands a minor role in the movie The Sickening. Dev doesn’t have a lot of lines in the movie, but one of them is updating the President about the outbreak of the virus. Dev delivers the line “Kentucky is gone” with all the seriousness that he can muster. And with that, the Bluegrass State is gone, according to the world of the sickening. This melodramatic moment is also fodder for what could be the best joke of the entire series. As the world around The Sickening is crumbling, one extra begins saying the pledge of allegiance. Next time, I’m in a state of chaos, I’m going to being reciting the pledge.
The Sickening the movie is terrible. The Sickening the movie within a show is wonderful. (Think The Rural Juror from 30 Rock). If Ansari isn’t performing about stories that happened to him, then he is writing about things that he wishes could happen. The gooey cheesiness of The Sickening makes for good TV. Often critics have a hard time letting themselves praise lowbrow TV. Writing a movie that doesn’t exist, but plausibly could, lets even the crustiest of critics enjoy the cheese.
Netflix Change #3: You can make fetch happen
Similar to Gretchen Wieners and her dream to make “fetch happen,” Ansari is trying to create something that has a difficult time gaining traction. There are topics on the show that Ansari wants to gain attention. A simple review of the episode titles can tell you many of the ideas that he wants to catch on: “Indians on TV,” “Ladies and Gentleman” and “Old People.” Unlike Ms. Wieners, Ansari’s fetch is happening. The “Indians on TV” episode gives a platform for him to talk about his experiences with race and the entertainment industry. He is able to point out how comfortable casting agents are with asking him to fake an Indian accent. He is able to use his show to describe the differences between how men and women are treated in society. He is able to cast his parents as his actual parents in the show. He is able to spend a solid thirty seconds imitating a stegosaurus’ growl. It’s his show. He can do what he wants.
There is never a moment when Ansari points to the meaning behind the title of the show. Dev never speaks the line “Well…I guess I’m just a jack of all trades but a master of none.” If he did, I believe I would throw my iPad against the wall. Being that literal is gross. There are threads of stories that connect each episode of the series. But, each story could be its own little world. For example, the episode “Parents” can stand on its own. In this episode, he points out how different he feels from his parents because he is a first generation American. There are even different opening title sequences for each episode. It is not a cliffhanging, must-binge-now kind of setup. It is as if Ansari dabbled in all of the storylines, but chose not to commit to just one story as the master. For this, I am thankful. Master of None gave me many takes on life, all without having to fast forward through commercials.