Modern Romance is the title of Aziz Ansari’s 2015 best seller, as well as a concise summary of the comedian’s personal brand. In his breakthrough role on Parks and Recreation, Ansari was able to make Tom Haverford — a frivolous, insecure dandy in small-town Indiana — a compelling portrait of a manchild-magpie whose zeal for flash kept him from pursuing more important things, including love. Ansari’s post-Tom projects, like his book and stand-up specials, found him leaning toward everyman dating foibles like dick pics and online profiles. With Master of None, the Netflix series that he cocreated with Parks writer Alan Yang, Ansari fully remade himself into a romantic hero. His Dev, a 30-ish actor who inhabits a Manhattan (and a Brooklyn) full of candlelit restaurants, invites viewers to relate to the mundane details of his relationships — and even more to the splendor of his romantic melancholy.
Half a century ago, another short, effete actor/writer/director/comedian from a sexually dismissed minority recast himself as an uncertain yearner — and in so doing, an object of desire. Woody Allen took advantage of a broadening cinematic landscape and a pop-culturally progressive era to challenge mainstream assumptions about which men were “fuckable.” One can see Allen’s influence on sad comedies like Louie and the first season of Baskets, but no other show borrows more from the iconic filmmaker’s mournful rom-coms, like Annie Hall and Manhattan, than Master of None does. In addition to Allen’s representational headway and storytelling-as-seduction approach, Master of None boasts the reverence for postwar European art films, the low-key glamour of an affluent New York, the satire of show business’s superficiality, and intimate conversations about the intellectual currents of the day (existentialism for Allen’s characters, race and other sources of inequality for Dev). Ansari’s series even looks like Allen’s ’70s romances, from the autumnal palette to the soft-focus lighting, the swooping camerawork to the white-on-black title cards resembling a table of contents.
Allen’s reputation is in tatters today — an outcome of his mostly pallid, self-repeating output over the last two decades and the allegations of child molestation by Dylan Farrow, his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter. As the culture changed, Allen’s films calcified through solipsism. It didn’t help that he and his casting director, Juliet Taylor, seemed to oversee an affirmative-action program for white actors that produced a slew of movies milkier than La La Land. Blue Jasmine, about the disgraced wife of a Bernie Madoff–like Wall Street scammer, stands out among his recent works for its female point of view, its protagonist’s downward mobility, and Cate Blanchett’s sweaty, nervous performance. What’s followed are a film (Magic in the Moonlight) and a TV series (Crisis in Six Scenes) about young women who destroy lives with their deceit (a painfully oblivious narrative choice post-Farrow), a tale about a female college student who becomes obsessed with her professor (Irrational Man), and a film about a side relationship between 27-year-old Kristen Stewart and 54-year-old Steve Carell (Café Society), because a grandfatherly aversion to computers is the only thing more Woody Allen–ish than an age-inappropriate romance.
Narcissism and stinginess go hand in hand — a lesson Ansari has thankfully learned. The best moments of Master of None’s wonderful second season are a direct result of Ansari’s generosity. The sixth episode, a trio of vignettes called “New York, I Love You,” offers the clearest-cut evidence that the series is a Woody Allen–inspired tribute to the kinds of people Woody Allen doesn’t put in his movies. A snapshot of the racial, international, economic, and disability diversity of New York (also ignored by iconic NYC-set series like Friends, Girls, and Sex and the City), the half-hour leaves Dev behind to spend time with a doorman of color, a deaf black cashier, and a Rwandan-American cab driver. Compact and delightful, that installment — as well as the eighth one about his friend Denise’s (Lena Waithe) coming out to her black family — feel like thoughtful acknowledgments from Ansari and Yang that there are stories even less frequently told by mainstream pop culture than those of lovelorn Indian-American men.
In championing men like himself, Allen threw people similar to himself under the bus. He refashioned himself as a forward-thinking romantic hero in part by stereotyping the older Jewish generation, like the incurious, argumentative guilt-mongers Allen’s Alvy Singer calls his parents in Annie Hall. And if he sympathized with the romantic plights of Jewish women (who had their own onscreen torchbearer in Barbra Streisand), he rarely gave them a voice. Moreover, he elevated his sexual status, and those of other Jewish men, by making himself “worthy” of shiksas like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow — casting decisions that served to uphold the supremacy of female WASP beauty and desirability.
Master of None isn’t entirely innocent of that phenomenon, either. The Indian-American movies and TV shows with the highest profiles today — a list that includes The Mindy Project, Kumail Nanjiani’s upcoming romance The Big Sick, and the rom-com doc Meet the Patels, which is currently being remade into a scripted feature by Fox Searchlight — star white love interests. Dev dated Noël Wells’s Rachel in Season 1 and pines after Alessandra Mastronardi’s Francesca in Season 2 while never managing to convince us of their specialness. At least Rachel was intermittently funny; Francesca’s whole thing is being a gorgeous accent-haver who enjoys … food.
But at least we also get to hear, mostly in the Tinder-thon that is the fourth episode (“First Date”), about dating as a black or Indian-American woman. And Ansari and Yang’s humanization of their parents’ generation in the first season’s landmark “Parents” episode and the Islam-centric “Religion” installment have made for two of the show’s superlative achievements. The brief occupation of Dev’s friend Brian’s dad, a retirement-age Taiwanese-American man, in the gently absurd Allen-ish role of having to choose between a woman with cooking skills or a woman with a great dog further contributes to the series’s mission of expanding the idea of what a romantic character can look like. His oeuvre is slim, but Ansari has already outdone Allen in one regard: He’s a master at spreading the love.