Aziz Ansari’s highly anticipated starring turn, and entry into the prestige cable/streaming pantheon, premiered just 11 days ago. If Master of None were airing on NBC or even HBO, that means it’d only just have aired its spectacular second episode, in which protagonist Dev (Ansari) and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) reflect on the sacrifices their immigrant parents have made — and how they’ve failed to appreciate them. But because it’s on Netflix, many viewers have already torn through all ten episodes of the show’s first season, and the critical reaction has already cycled through fervent praise, thoughtful analysis, and predictable backlash at breakneck speed.
Within a single week, initial reviews like The New York Times’ — and Flavorwire’s! — called the show “the year’s best comedy straight out the gate” and “one of the best new shows of the year.” Longer, more specific considerations focused on Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang’s handling of issues like systemic racism in Hollywood. Multiple writers argued the series isn’t the diversity panacea others made it out to be, and even had representation issues of its own. And then other writers rose to the show’s defense.
The consensus seems to have settled, reasonably enough, in the neighborhood of, “Master of None is very good, but also in its first season, and therefore neither perfect nor done developing.” Still, despite all the hype turned justified excitement turned radio silence, I noticed a strange gap in all the attempts to place Master of None in the context of contemporary comedies. In fact, to borrow the signature catchphrase of one of Dev’s more obvious antecedents, I couldn’t help but wonder why a certain show, and what it says about what Master of None is trying to say about modern urban life, was largely missing from the conversation.
Not that Master of None‘s more frequently cited influences and parallels aren’t accurate. Preoccupied with male singlehood and illustrating said preoccupation with surreal, gorgeously filmed asides, the show does bear a striking resemblance to Louie; unabashedly grounded in the perspective of its nonwhite leads, it fits in well with the current wave of shows grounded in the experiences of people of color — particularly sitcoms like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, but also the Shondaland complex and Empire. And that’s not even getting into the shows upon shows upon shows starring thinly fictionalized versions of the actor-comedians who created them, forever epitomized by Seinfeld.
Yet it wasn’t these series I kept thinking of while watching Master of None, starting with the opening scene of a one-night stand gone amusingly wrong and continuing through the finale’s life crisis-induced breakup. Instead, I kept flashing back to a different binge-watching experience: discovering Sex and the City through the magic of HBO Go.
That’s partly because, as one might expect from the author of a book called Modern Romance, Master of None‘s most consistent theme turns out to be not race and representation, but sex, dating, and love. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and that’s part of the point: Dev is a three-dimensional person who experiences workplace microaggressions (and not-so-micro aggressions, in the case of a certain leaked email) and relationship anxiety in equal measure. Still, while the episodes “Parents” and “Indians on TV” are early standouts, the back end of Master of None‘s first season increasingly focuses on the dynamic between Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells), closing out with the one-two punch of “Mornings,” my vote for the best standalone television episode of the year, and “Finale,” in which — spoiler alert! — uncertainty drives Rachel to Tokyo and Dev to Italian pasta school.
Combined with the opener (Rachel’s the other half of that hookup) and the countless debates about dating etiquette in between, Master of None starts to look like the sort of romantic comedy television’s increasingly good at: a long-form portrait of a connection between two fully realized people, one that finds as much material in the mid-relationship fights as in the meet-cute. It’s those debates, though, that separate Master of None from Catastrophe or You’re the Worst. Like Sex and the City, Master is just as much about relying on friends to navigate one’s love life, and friends as more constant and reliable companions than the romantic partners we’re conditioned to think of as our endgame.
That idea was a fairly radical one when Sex and the City introduced it to a mass audience more than 15 years ago, and continued to be no matter how many times Carrie Bradshaw explicitly preached it via voiceover. Master of None never states it as bluntly, but when Dev consults with Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Brian, and Denise (Lena Waithe) about texting, the ideal first date, or how to take advantage of a spare concert ticket, it’s impossible not to flash back to the SATC foursome’s standing Sunday brunch date, not to mention any number of onscreen dinners, drinks, and gallery openings. The presence of Dev’s friends isn’t quite as constant, nor their roles as defined, but as it stands, they’ll clearly be around next season to serve as a sounding board — and Rachel probably won’t.
And then there’s where all those meetings take place, which says everything about the particular slice of New York City Master of None depicts. Dev and company hang out at spots like El Rey, Mission Chinese, and Hotel Delmano, which are precisely to 2015 what Sex and the City favorites like Cafeteria or Buddakan were to the aughts: hip, upmarket, and there to establish cachet even among viewers who don’t live in the city. It’s a New York entirely different from that of Girls’ still-broke 20-somethings, despite that show’s supposed status as heir to the SATC throne, or Broad City‘s exaggerated, near-hallucinatory alternate universe. It’s not just expensive, though it’s certainly that; it’s aspirational.
Consequently, Dev’s lifestyle — just like Carrie’s! — doesn’t exactly match up with real life. People who aren’t bankers or tech workers, let alone underemployed actors, don’t live in light-filled, impeccably decorated lofts, and writers living off a single column don’t have a stockpile of Manolo Blahniks. (Ansari says the nice apartment makes sense for an actor booking steady commercial work.) That’s because both Master of None and Sex and the City take place in a fantasy of New York, one that’s all the more compelling for being recognizable as the actual city rather than a studio soundstage, à la Friends.
Here is where one has to note the obvious distinction between Master of None and Sex and the City: the latter is overwhelmingly white, limiting its scope even further beyond the already narrow terrain of “affluent, creative New Yorkers in their 30s,” while Master of None features not just a lead, but an entire ensemble cast whose non-whiteness is central to their characters. Ansari and Yang have created a seemingly effortless example of representation done right, while Darren Star delivered a fiction of New York stripped of the diversity that defines the real thing.
Yet just as Master of None is a landmark of representation, so was Sex and the City, in its way. It felt revolutionary to watch women talk candidly about sex without men in the room, even if they were talking almost exclusively about men. It felt revolutionary, as Emily Nussbaum famously argued, to watch women onscreen start to be flawed and unlovable, along with their male counterparts. It felt revolutionary, in other words, to watch a group just be in a way that felt true to life, even if their apparent incomes didn’t. Sound familiar?
It makes sense that the two shows mostly haven’t been connected, for reasons both fair (one of Master of None‘s greatest strengths, diversity, is Sex and the City‘s greatest weakness) and not (Sex and the City isn’t the first female-led show to be ghettoized, and it won’t be the last). But considering them side by side demonstrates just how successful Master of None is at a project it often isn’t credited for taking on in the first place. The freedom of a spouse-less, childless life in America’s biggest city comes with both an overwhelming number of choices and the time to tackle them. Both Carrie and Dev do their best.