Every once in a while — and happily now with more regularity that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are around — some bona fide art gets made that feels mainlined from the outflow of hours, the hustle and flow, the hassles and trials of our daily life. Man, it's real but better. When it happens, as it does in the new Netflix series Master of None, written by and starring the comedian Aziz Ansari, people go ape shit. The show has had more praise heaped on it than a triumphant Caesar returning from battle. It's the small screen's City on Fire. But the critical euphoria is hardly hyperbolic. A show like this is akin to seeing your own life depicted in stained glass: illuminated, more colorful, radiant.
"Nearly every one of Master of None’s 10 episodes contains something verifiable and immediately true about food."
Because it is the purview of this column — but also because it has largely been unremarked upon despite the millions of pixels darkened — it should be noted that not only does Master of None with great dexterity channel thorny issues while maintaining an alluring and relatable lightness, but that it is also the best television program about food in recent memory. It has become increasingly clear that food — and specifically food in the context of foodies, as opposed to food in the fields — is a subject that, like a solar eclipse or the junk of a co-worker at the urinal next door, is best glimpsed at only peripherally. This doesn't mean occasionally, haphazardly, or cursorily. Peripheral vision, as everyone from Steve Wynn to a squirrel knows, is extremely important to survival.
Nearly every one of the 10 half-hour episodes which make up the first season of Master of None contains something verifiable and immediately true about food. These truths can be parsed into three distinct piles. Firstly, and most superficially, Master of None has impeccable taste in restaurants. Not only are they extrinsically da bomb-diggity, but the choices also accord by the internal rules of the show. Of course Dev, the thirty-something-year-old Indian-American actor played by Ansari, the thirty-something-year-old Indian-American actor, would eat at Marlow & Sons and have drinks at Hotel Delmano and party at 169 Bar and brunch at the Smile.
For any youngish person in New York City of a certain assured income, sans bureau fixé, these restaurants and bars are the bumpers and flippers by which we pinball through our lives. To some extent, this truth is for the front-row crowd, those who have enough a priori knowledge of Williamsburg and Greenpoint's restaurant scenes, to recognize, for instance, that it is only right that Father John Misty would be playing at Baby's All Right or that Dev's character would naturally end up drinking craft cocktails at Alameda and Achilles Heel. So that is a rather secret frivolous pleasure. It's the mystic chords of truth played on a baby piano.
Observational truths range from insider restaurant knowledge to the "recognizable and ridiculous tendencies from we, the hungry."
The second sort of truth Master of None is strictly observational. These truths are those at which one laughs appreciatively at a stand-up comedian, and most of these are uttered in the few minutes before the credits, a sort of overture which functions much as Louis CK's or Jerry Seinfeld's standup sets did in their titular shows. Dev's friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric fame) often plays the straight man. In episode two, when Arnold and Dev kibbitz in the long mirrored hallway of Mission Chinese, waxing poetic about the Dyson Airblade ("I feel like I'm drying my hands in the future," says Arnold) and about fancy soap ("My hands smell like geraniums. It's amazing," says Dev). Or when Arnold ("large Caucasian man") and Dev ("his charming Indian friend") suffer from the selective attention of hipster bartenders or later when, sitting around in Dev's apartment, he has an idea for an app that analyzes "your tum and tells you what you want to eat." That last bit, by the way, transitions into a wonderful sequence about finding the perfect taco using websites such as this one (yippee!) and Yelp! (meh). That's pile one of truth.
The secondary truth is that yes, this is a recognizable and ridiculous tendency of we, the hungry. This mania of finding the best _________ as rated by _______, this is a madness. But when Arnold and Dev finally find the best tacos — Tacos Morelos, of course — it is closed. Now we're getting closer to something resonant and profound. Ansari uses Eater to illustrate the difference between satisfiers and maximizers. We've never been put to better use.
And then there's the third truth, the real get-in-there-and-cry shit. Most television shows and movies — most people, all pets, and every goddamn pop song — explore a limited register of sentiment. Whether it's preciously melancholic or tritely comedic, ranges tend only to be resonant and sure around a few notes, an octave at best. Master of None is fucking symphonic. When it plumbs basso profundity, it loses none of its honeyed tone. And there are plenty of examples throughout the five hours of the show in which food is used to enter into these uneasy corners. In episode two, Dev and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (the wonderful Kelvin Yu) take their parents out to a nice dinner to hear about their odysseys as young immigrants to America.
"Most TV shows explore a limited register of sentiment. Master of None is fucking symphonic."
Already, we're inching our way out to the center of the tender trampoline of feeeeelings. I don't think there is a more tenderizing concept for a child than the secret pains of his parent. Except — speaking more as a father than a son — contemplating the pain one's own children keep shut up within themselves. That a show devotes an entire episode to understanding the silence of our parents, that Ansari and Yu treat them not as ethnic stereotypes or stand-ins for an obsolete outdated old-fashioned morality, is already a coup. But it also takes the show deep into Lifetime movieland, where millennials go to snarl and die. So the slightest error, the most seemingly benign misstep, anything that disturbs these gossamer threads of genuineness and awakens the spider of sarcasm, spectre of irony, must be strenuously avoided. And this means all the truths must hold steady simultaneously. Happily, they do.
Dev, Brian, and their respective parents end up at Shun Lee Palace in Midtown. This is the first type of truth. Shun Lee Palace in Midtown East is exactly the kind of nice restaurant one might take one's folks. Founded in 1971, one of the first Hunan restaurants in the country, Shun Lee Palace is still the primus inter pares for parents. It's not hip like Roberta's or Pearl & Ash, not as spendy as Le Bernardin or Marea. It exists in metaphorical and geographical midtown. Then, truth two emerges: Dev's father orders the chicken and broccoli while Brian's father, speaking in Mandarin to the waiter, says, "I'm sorry this man is ordering chicken with broccoli. Please bring the good dishes you only serve Chinese people." To which the waiter, resplendent in ill-fitting blue jacket with gold epaulets responds, "Sure. I can't believe they think that is what we eat in Taiwan." Extra points here, obviously, for realizing the cuisine at Shun Lee, dating back to when it's old chef TT Pang stole the recipe from a Taiwanese chef named Peng, is mostly Taiwanese, rather than mainland. And of course, herein is confirmed our deepest fears: There is a secret menu after all!
From the initial pan across the restaurant — [Scene opens: waiter carves a Peking Duck as gracefully as if he were practicing calligraphy....] — to the table, every detail rings clarion. And then truth number three emerges: the sticky shit of family happens. Whatever romanticized notions either Dev or Brian had are quickly dispelled. Dev's mother, Nisha, says she spent the first day in America weeping. Brian's father remembers a Dickensian childhood in which he slaughtered his pet chicken for food. (This is as a plate of chicken sits on the table.) The older generation only opens up when discussing embarrassing moments during the childhoods of their children. Those, naturally, have to do with food, chocolate cake, and gluttony for Brian, Pizza Hut and bullying for Dev. It is, on the whole, an unsatisfying fishing expedition. But, as the show makes clear, when taken without expectation, it can be joyous too. The underlying truth here is that humans are basically good.
Even the errors suggest a generosity in the world.
Though I love the show, I would be remiss if I were not to point out the few moments when it falters. Dev has a fling with a food critic (played by Carrie Mathison while her cuckolded husband is played by Stan Beeman) who utters the word "rez," as in "When I make a rez." But no one, absolutely no one, says "rez." It's the slang of yesteryear. People sometimes say "ressie" but even then, they're often saying Resy. Another stumble: In episode six, Dev and Rachel roll into Parlor Coffee. Dev orders a cortado; Rachel the same. There's a beautiful Speedster espresso machine, but it seems as if the barista has already pulled the shot. No milk is foamed. Who knows what the fuck is in the second cup? Certainly no microfoam or coffee. And as a general note on verisimilitude: The restaurants in which the characters dine would be deafeningly, deafeningly loud. It is impossible to carry on a conversation at Mission Chinese, for instance. As anyone who eats there knows, one must rely solely on pidgin sign and grimaces.
But even these errors seem to suggest a generosity in the world. Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to wait for the espresso to be extracted yet it was not bitter or that we didn't need to yell over Sonic Youth to be heard whilst eating pepperoni pizza at Mission Chinese? Wouldn't it be grand to live in a universe as benign as that of Master of None, where the characters treat themselves with loving kindness and others with compassion, which is funny and profound, where everyone is basically good? Yes, yes it would be, and the good news is we already do. This is the true blessing of Master of None. It makes us realize that the light streaming through the stained glass, that's not a window. It's a mirror.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5