Aziz Ansari‘s Netflix series begins on a flat note. In the midst of sex, his character, 30-year-old actor Dev, fretfully tells his partner that the condom just broke. The two then proceed to argue, Google the sperm content of pre-cum, then take a trip to a local pharmacy, where Dev also picks up a bottle of Martinelli’s apple juice.
The sequence plays to all of Ansari’s weaknesses — the blitheness that masks emptiness, the ebullient childishness that starts out as adorable and quickly curdles. And the rest of the episode, which revolves around Dev’s curiosity about having children, plays to the worst stereotypes of navel-gazing New Yorkers. There is nothing about the first episode that hints at the hilarity, heartbreak, and formal derring-do that will suffuse the next nine.
In the days since “Parks and Recreation” ended its run on NBC, Ansari has made a niche for himself as a commentator on modern dating. For anyone who doubted his bona fides, regardless of the popularity of his book “Modern Romance: An Investigation,” look no further than “Master of None,” which Ansari co-created with Alan Yang.
Ansari not only digs deep when it comes to hot-button issues — being a working Indian-American actor without resorting to playing stereotypes; one sequence blissfully vivisects the difference for men and women in waking home late at night from a bar (for the woman, the trip is scored by the “Halloween” theme) — but he tamps down his over-enthusiastic persona to great effect. Part of that is almost certainly due to the stellar directors involved, from Lynn Shelton to James Ponsoldt, but part of it is the fantastic supporting cast with which Ansari has surrounded himself. Dev’s career affords plenty of opportunities for incisive commentary on the business, and Condola Rashad and H. Jon Benjamin both memorably pop up as co-star characters, while Noah Emmerich and Claire Danes drop by to have a blast and Ravi Patel plays himself.
The real breakout star, however, is Noël Wells. She barely registers in the first episode, but by the end of the series she will have broken your heart. Ansari’s skepticism regarding modern dating gives the series its tartness, but, as with almost any secretly romantic cynic, all that goes out the window after one amazing date–and he and Wells provide, over the course of an episode, one of the most memorable dates ever filmed. Wells is a perfect foil for Ansari, and watching the characters and the actors enjoy themselves as much as Ansari and Wells do is infectious.
The latter half of the season is its strongest, as if Ansari was easing his fans into the experience of seeing him tackle darker, bigger themes. What began as a lark, a friendlier “Louie,” morphs into a serious examination of what it means to be a 30-year-old with options in the year 2015. A generation raised on romantic comedies is beginning to realize that life affords more than someone to come home to at day’s end, and “Master of None” is more articulate than any other show at putting under a microscope that generation’s neuroses, desires, and ambivalence. The series also happens to be sexy, hilarious, and very moving, a tribute to Ansari’s observational powers and ability to pinpoint the zeitgeist. Consider “Master of None” to be Netflix’s early Christmas gift to subscribers.