When a stand-up comic such as Aziz Ansari puts together a TV show these days, it essentially goes one of two ways. There’s the joke-a-minute format, the conventional laugh riot, wherein the comic adapts his (Jerry Seinfeld) or her (Roseanne) stage material for characters in home or office situations. Ray Romano, Bill Cosby, Tim Allen, Norm Macdonald, Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Whitney Cummings, even Jackie Mason have all taken this road over the decades, with varying degrees of success.
And now there is the “Louie” model, the slice-of-life approach, which is built loosely on a stand-up’s sensibility and, sometimes, shaded in with pathos — the legendary darker side of those who make us laugh for a living. The laughs on these shows, when there are laughs, aren’t in one-liners; they’re in the depictions of the absurdity and awkwardness of human behavior. Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is an early example of the format, which is also seen in “Maron,” but Louis C.K. took it all a step further, enhancing it with realism and beautiful long takes and inviting comparisons to Woody Allen.
On Friday, Netflix is releasing the first 10-episode season of Ansari’s show, and it falls squarely into this naturalistic, single-camera category. And it is a vibrant, original pleasure. Called “Master of None,” it’s not as revelatory and enigmatic as “Louie,” nor is it filmed with the same kind of auteur’s control and vision. But it’s the faceted story of a life in New York — that of Ansari’s 30-year-old Dev, the struggling actor son of Indian immigrants — and it is intelligent, observant, wise, and moving. Like “Louie,” it also benefits from the non-network license to explore the downbeat, to be moody and unpredictable and to be sexually frank.
“Master of None” arrives as a bit of a surprise, in that, based on his ever-hustling and frivolous Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation,” Ansari didn’t seem capable of evoking depth and complication. But as Dev, he is sympathetic and interesting, by turns sweet, self-aware, ambitious, principled, cynical, lonely, and childlike. With his agent, played by Danielle Brooks, of “Orange Is the New Black,” he wants to make “‘Friends’ money,” but in the meantime he’s living off the residuals from — and socially haunted by — a popular Gogurt commercial he made a few years earlier.
Each episode has its own theme and title — “Parents,” “The Other Man,” “Plan B” — so that Ansari can isolate and dig into rich ideas about racism, sexism, and adultery. But then ongoing story lines flow through all the episodes, so that the season holds together nicely. Dev gets a role in “The Sickening,” a cheap CGI-driven zombie movie targeting black audiences, and we occasionally follow him onto the set, where, as in Ricky Gervais’s “Extras,” he mingles with sometimes-ridiculous types. British actor Colin Salmon plays a cat-mourning version of himself, and Todd Barry plays the director, a brutally cynical guy who, when Dev wants to add lines to a green-screen scene, says, “This movie’s not really about words.”
We also sporadically hang out with Dev and his friends, including Denise (Lena Waithe) and Arnold (Eric Wareheim), as they untangle romantic questions in various New York restaurants and bars. One of the better episodes is “Parents,” in which Dev and his Asian friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) realize that, having grown up in the States, they don’t quite understand their parents. The episode gives us quickie back stories on both fathers — Brian’s father is from Taiwan — and a dinner scene of them all eating together at a Chinese restaurant. It’s the classic tale of parents who suffer so their children can become spoiled Americans, and it’s as charming a half-hour as I’ve seen all year, as hard-won understanding prevails. Dev’s parents are played by Ansari’s parents, by the way, and his father, Shoukath, is a natural.
I could go through episode after episode and praise “Master of None,” which includes some pleasing star appearances (including Claire Danes as a high-strung food critic) and a lot of smart ideas about assimilation (alongside “Blackish”). The episode “Indians on TV” pairs Dev with his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel), an Indian-American actor who, unlike Dev, is willing to play an “unnamed cab driver” with a fake Indian accent. They go up against each other for a role in a network sitcom, which can only include one Indian in the cast. Dev and Ravi review sitcom history, noting that “Will & Grace” had two gay lead characters — what’s up with that?
There’s a small “but” that I’m saving for the end. “Master of None” is a treat, but . . . try not to judge it by the first episode, called “Plan B.” It’s the weakest one I saw, as Dev faces the socially induced fantasy about the joys of having children. You can feel the thematic ambition in the episode, and by the end it has achieved some weight, but Dev’s journey of understanding is predictable and the chemistry among the ensemble is forced. You can sense that all involved — the actors, the writers — are at the beginning of their own journey of understanding, discovering the richness of the show as they move forward.
MASTER OF NONE
Starring: Aziz Ansari, H. Jon Benjamin, Eric Wareheim, Ravi Patel, Fatima Ansari, Shoukath Ansari, Lena Waithe, Noel Wells, Kelvin Yu
On: Netflix. First season available on FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.