It perhaps says something about the differing ambitions of Britain and America that successful standup comedians are awarded quite different prizes either side of the Atlantic.
This side of the pond limeys can expect at best a regular seat on a panel show, the barbs now coming from their colleagues after years of heckling on the comic equivalent of the musicians’ toilet circuit.
Stateside the trend seems to be to award the joker his own television show in which a fictionalised version of himself must face the hardships of modern life: Louis CK’s eponymous series and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm being exemplars of the genre.
And so charging into this breach is Aziz Ansari, an Indian American comic who has created the ten episode Netflix series Master of None.
The show follows Dev, an uncannily familiar Indian American 20something actor living in New York having a tough time exploring sex, food and quarter-life crises.
If this sounds a bit like a shameless rip off of Ansari’s own life (he starred in Parks and Recreation, among other things), the gags are likewise, touching on many of the themes dealt with in the comic’s standup.
Even so, some jokes do hit the mark. Two flashback sequences from Dev’s dad (one of the show’s funnier characters, played by Ansari’s real-life father) and the Taiwanese father of Dev’s friend Brian are among the most amusing moments in the show.
Another segment comparing two men’s walk home at night with a woman being stalked by a drunken brute she spoke to in a bar is particularly good, even if the script later carries a rather fawning, uncritical view of “invalidating” a woman’s experience (ie, disputing an opinion).
But where the show suffers most is in its unsympathetic characters and increasing fixation with plot at the expense of humour.
Dev has befriended some of the most infuriating hipsters in New York, who seemingly spend all day in restaurants, peppering their speech with faux-eccentric, irksome slang before heading home to implausibly lush apartments.
That such people live lives of almost unmatched comfort and opportunity is an old theme of Ansari’s standup, but one that the comic fails to attack with the savagery it deserves.
Instead the story is gradually drawn to Dev’s rather bland relationship with the music promoter Rachel, increasingly neglecting Ansari’s mostly one-dimensional co-stars towards the end.
The thinness of the the characters is most exemplified by Denise, who appears every so often to deliver lesbian wisdom on whichever crisis Dev is facing before wandering out of shot again. That some have lapped this up maybe says more about the lack of good roles for lesbians in American television than the strength of this series.
In the end Master of None is an unconvincing mixture of bland New York sitcom and the hilarious gags that made Ansari’s name. Viewers will find the comic’s standup a better use of their time.
Image Credit – Master of None, via Netflix