Jim Strouse (People, Places, Things) Talks Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None

The latest binge-watching sensation is great television exactly because it doesn't conform to the medium's conventions.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

I had a general meeting with a TV exec the other day. Like a lot of indie filmmakers, I make no money and am desperate to break into television. I don’t know if there is money in television, but from the outside it seems like Shangri-La. Of course, making a feature film used to seem like Shangri-La until I did that. But let’s not dwell. One needs a certain amount of self-delusion to keep at it in this business.

“What shows do you like?” asked the exec.

“I really love Master of None,” I said, having recently binge-watched the whole thing in one weekend.

“Mmm,” said the exec, discouragingly. “What you have to keep in mind about a show like Master of None is that Aziz Ansari was already a big star before Netflix bought it.”

“You, on the other hand, are a complete nobody and should focus on a dumb idea that is easy to pitch in a single sentence,” I thought to myself in the intervening silence that followed his statement.

“Think about the poster for your show,” said the exec. “How does it stand out? Why are people going to pick your thing over the hundreds of other things out there?”

I left the meeting and immediately started brainstorming poster ideas. I like writing about real people dealing with real problems in comedic yet relatable ways. But what if these people also had to deal with…aliens? That would be different. What if I wrote, like, a Gilmore Girls-type thing with aliens in it? Yeah. I visualized the poster. Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel smiling for the camera as alien tentacles reached out for them from every direction.

Holy smokes! This was a good idea. The poster totally stood out. People would probably watch the shit out of something like this, right?! I immediately emailed the broad strokes to my agent. Two minutes later she replied, “Doesn’t really sound like you. I’d keep thinking. Also, wasn’t that the premise of Roswell?”

She was totally right. Not about Roswell. That show lacked the witty repartee of Gilmore Girls. But the idea was not me. I was chasing some abstract concept of what an audience might want based on a TV exec’s cynical advice, which very well might be how The Big Bang Theory came to exist. But I wanted to do something better. Or nothing at all.

I can’t help but wonder if Aziz Ansari and Master of None‘s co-creator, Alan Yang, tried to visualize the poster for their show as they were figuring it out. For some reason, I doubt it. Master of None does not have a broad concept. The show is about many things. It revolves around Aziz Ansari. Or Aziz if his name was Dev and he was a less successful actor. Dev is a kind and thoughtful person. He goes on dates, talks to his friends and visits his family. He loves food and music. This is not generally what one thinks of as great material for a TV show, and yet Master of None is one of the best things I’ve seen since Louie.

One of the reasons I love it so much (and Louie, for that matter) is its humanistic approach to character and story. There is a great little moment in the first episode when Dev is charged with taking care of two small children, a boy and a girl. They are out in public when the girl suddenly has to go to the bathroom. Dev takes the kids to a store, and the girl wants Dev to come into the bathroom with her. Dev turns to two women waiting in line behind him for help. One woman has a shaved head and is wearing a dark trench coat. The other woman has long brown hair and is wearing a cardigan and blouse. Dev asks the woman in the cardigan if she would mind accompanying the little girl into the bathroom. This ends up unintentionally offending both women, and neither helps him out. So Dev has to go into the bathroom with the girl. But before he does, he turns to the women and says, “You know, I understand why you’re not helping me, but I just want you to know that in my heart I meant no offense to either of you.” The entire show is infused with this sort of wonderful mindfulness towards others.

A favorite sequence in Master of None begins with Dev’s immigrant father innocently asking his son for help setting up the calendar on his iPad. As Dev insensitively explains that he will miss the previews before the movie he’s about to see with a friend if he takes the time to help, we seamlessly segue into Dev’s father’s immigrant story, from him as a boy living in rural India all the way to becoming a doctor in the States and buying his son his first computer. It’s a funny sequence in light of the moment that’s just motivated it. But it is also incredibly moving. And it’s equally as moving when we return to the present moment and watch Dev’s father nonchalantly shrug OK after his son refuses to help him. Because on some level the father understands that this is both a consequence and benefit of having strived for a better life for his family. As well as being very funny, the moment feels truthful and actually made me think about my own relationship with my parents.

Master of None is also admirable in its resistance to formula. Although there are recurring characters and situations throughout the series, each episode feels like its own unique thing. In this way, it resembles a collection of linked stories (Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son comes to mind) more than other TV shows. Each episode revolves around a single theme (“Parents,” “Indians on TV,” “Old People”) but instead of plugging these themes into a pre-fab formula (like every sitcom I grew up watching as a kid), Yang and Ansari build the show around the theme.

“Parents” begins with Dev’s father’s flashback sequence of coming to America from India. It is immediately followed by his friend’s father’s story of coming to America from Taiwan. These two sequences take up the first eight minutes of the show before the credits even come up.

In “Plan B,” the show’s first episode, Rachel, played by Noël Wells, is introduced through an awkward one-night stand that ends in the purchase of a Plan B pill and Martinelli’s apple juice. She doesn’t appear again until the end of the third episode, “Hot Ticket,” and even though there is still an attraction between her and Dev, they can’t do anything about it since sheʼs back together with an old boyfriend. Their official first date doesn’t happen until episode six, “Nashville,” when Dev makes the baller move to invite her away on a weekend to Nashville (the entire show is otherwise set in New York). And it’s not until episode nine, “Mornings” – my favorite episode of the entire series and quite possibly the most formally daring – that we see Dev and Rachel fall in love. This happens the only way true love can between two people, with time. And so we watch Dev and Rachel over time. We see them have hot sex, make each other laugh, decide to move in, get on each other’s nerves, have less hot sex, get on each other’s nerves even more, fight a lot, make up, fight more, come close to breaking up, take time apart and ultimately come back together with a deeper and stronger appreciation of one another, all in a series of mornings set at Dev’s apartment. It’s a stunning episode in its scope and structure, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the half-hour format.

When was the last time you saw a half-hour comedy that was as progressive and forward-thinking in terms of content as it was formally innovative – and also consistently made you laugh? Everyone should watch this show so that these things can become the new norm. Until then, I guess I’ll just keep brainstorming dip-shit posters.

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Jim Strouse is from Goshen, Indiana. Howard Hawks was also from Goshen, Indiana. Jim Strouse does not think he’s as good as Howard Hawks nor ever will be. He just thought it was an interesting coincidence. He sometimes draws superheroes on the toilet, and his new film, People, Places, Things, comes out August 14.