Master of None

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Image Source: Netflix.com via Screencrush.com

Aziz Ansari made his name as the stereotype-smashing Tom Haverford from the incomparable Parks and Recreation, as well as a successful stand-up career. Ansari has gone on good number of tours and has recorded a bunch of comedy specials that are currently available for your perusal on Netflix. All of his previous work indicated Ansari had a special knack for pop culture-laden comedy, and his snappy wit showed his intelligent and insightful observations of modern society. So it was only a matter of time before Ansari got his big break to write and star in his own comedy show, which launched in November of 2015 on Netflix, titled: Master of None.

Master of None has received a lot of critical acclaim and significant attention for its commentary on minority representations in Hollywood. Written by Ansari and Alan Yang, the show has a notably more diverse writing team and cast than most cable comedies. The show taps into some issues that are rarely discussed in pop culture, such as the competing factors that come from being first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents. It accomplishes these themes in a very friendly and non-preachy way, making them very accessible to even those without first-hand experiences that relate.

In my opinion, the true brilliance of the show is how genuinely in captured modern, urban, young adult culture. [Editorial disclaimer: it is important to distinguish the “modern, urban young adult” from the broader term “Millenial,” as the latter is a generational divide and should be inclusive of those living in smaller cities or in rural communities. Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made in media portrayals of our generation, which sells short the diversity of opinion and upbringing among Millenials.] Master of None is spot on from its use of social media apps to drive plot points (the brilliant episode with Yelp! decision paralysis), to Rachel’s (Noel Wells) job as a music promoter, the show really captures a lot of the nuances of a changing social environment. The show is really in touch with the present day and is heavily steeped in the much more diverse and cosmopolitan interests of a new generation of urban young people. Ansari and Yang seem to have a real talent for blending humor with serious topics of identity and a general sense of listlessness that is so often associated with the modern job market. In a world where “career tracks” aren’t as clear and new high-tech or entertainment-focused industries are emerging, Master of None strikes a unique tone that really resonates with the overwhelming indecisiveness of youth.

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Source: Netflix.com

Though nowhere near as wildly popular, it is along the same vein as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, but for a new generation. Friends showed how young people dealt with dating, friendship, and life in NYC during the 1990s, and HIMYM was really the same thing a decade later. Now, ten years (wow) after HIMYM premiered, a Millenial audience has its own version of the classic “life in the big city” comedy in Master of None. In the show, we see a lot of those similar themes, but also highlighted by some deeper more existential and artistic questions than those previous campy sitcoms ever delved into. Dev (Ansari) and the rest of the talented cast spend a lot of the show just talking, which is actually similar in format to Friends and HIMYM, but this is the first show really set in the Information Age. The questions of texting rules and etiquette, the changing dynamics of dating apps, and the moral quandaries of chasing the perfect taco on Yelp! are all new concepts to the TV comedy and really relate to audiences.

I do have a couple of quick criticisms of the show, however, most of which revolve around finances. There is an assumption in all of these types of shows that the main characters have a lot of disposable income. Sure, there are plenty of people living in these big cities that can relate to that, but Dev eats at some fancy restaurants and has a super implausibly nice apartment in New York. Sure, it makes for prettier sets and is probably more in line with how a successful comedic actor and writer like Ansari actually lives, but it cuts into the illusion that this show is about “normal” people. The lack of financial concerns makes for a relatively tone-deaf interpretation of the Millenial experience. It also tended to seem a little too over-scripted at times, as Dev and Rachel’s relationship was so pithy and full of quips that it felt kind of empty at times. Later developments in the characters did show a surprising willingness to veer from comedy and deal with real issues, which is definitely a plus for the show, but the cracks would have been more meaningful if the foundation seemed stronger earlier.

In the end, though, Master of None is well worth your time. It’s got some laughs, some depth, and likable characters that will usher in a new generation of TV comedies. Rating: 8 of 10

Marvel’s Daredevil – Season 2

Marvel’s new lineup of Netflix shows stormed onto the scene last year with the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, where Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, and company delivered masterful portrayal of the iconic hero, as well as a dark and gritty look into the world superheroes at large. The violence and moral ambiguity of vigilantism and the horrible depravity of the criminal underworld led to some truly innovative scenes, pushing the superhero genre further than it had ever seen on television or in films. The frills and bombast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) keeps its heroes fun and witty, fighting more with lasers and well-timed quips than beating their enemies to a bloody pulp. This is not a criticism of the MCU, as I greatly enjoyed the vast majority of their films (see a full review here), but the tone and intended audience is quite a bit different in these Netflix shows. The mature content drives plots to more complex and distressing topics like sexual and domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other horrible things that can occur in the underbelly of a major city. This first season was incredible and highlighted a whole new world of content made available to Marvel fans like myself. A resounding applause to the whole creative team, led by Jeph Loeb.

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Source: Marvel.com

After the wildly successful and creative first season of Daredevil, Marvel followed it with another new show six months later. This time, the title character was a little-known super-powered woman named Jessica Jones, a foul-mouthed, aggressive, functional alcoholic with a dark past. Marvel’s Jessica Jones pushed mature themes even further, as Jessica served as a sort of antihero, reluctantly seeking an odd and occasionally disturbing combination of justice and revenge. Her interests were sometimes selfish, her approach can only be described as unorthodox, and her treatment of friends and lovers was not always the nicest. The depth and complexity of Jessica’s character, delivered by Kristen Ritter, was perfect. She is the most complex and dynamic character Marvel has developed to date. The whole show, anchored by opposing performances by Ritter and David Tennant as the horrifyingly evil Killgrave was an absolute thrill. These two shows set the bar so high for following seasons in Marvel’s Netflix line, that it seemed the sky was the limit.

Following another six month gap, we arrive at the present. Marvel’s Daredevil released a second season to follow its incredible inaugural performance. Anticipation had been building for months, as casting decisions for the next two entries (Luke Cage and Iron Fist) were gradually announced. Marvel confirmed a second season of Jessica Jones would be on its way as well. Marketing and trailers revealed that two of the most iconic members of Daredevil’s supporting cast would be making their small screen debuts: the Punisher and Elektra. I had March 18th marked on my calendar. I was ready!

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Daredevil (Charlie Cox) was joined by Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Young) in the Second Season. Source: Marvel.com

The start of the season brought the same incredible drama that had drawn me in so completely in the first season. A new, unknown force (clearly the Punisher) was taking down large swaths of the criminal underworld in a massive, execution-style take-down. Naturally, Daredevil finds himself at odds with this brutal riff on vigilantism, leading to an epic ideological struggle. This first arc lasts for about six episodes, centering on the contrasting worldviews of Matt Murdock and Frank Castle, the latter of which, played perfectly by Jon Bernthal, absolutely stole the show. The rooftop scene where Frank and Matt first debate their competing visions of justice and vigilantism is iconic. Daredevil is chained to a chimney, while the Punisher tries to convince him that he is “just one bad day away from being me.” The contrast between Castle’s callous brutality and his severe emotional damage made for an extremely compelling character. He was terrifying and yet pitiable, a murderer and a hero. I can’t say enough about the handling of the Punisher’s character and that whole first arc.

Unfortunately, the second arc of the season was not quite as well fleshed out. The introduction of Elektra (played by Elodie Young) did work pretty well, and Young brought a certain crazed energy to the character that seemed true to source material. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to Elektra and Matt’s earlier romance, which cleanly provided the background audiences needed in order to understand the present-day relationship. The show’s decision to downplay the mystical elements of Miller’s original writing was a good one. Though the mysterious “Black Sky” did leave mystical or spiritual possession on the table for an explanation of Elektra’s blood-lust. I appreciated Marvel’s willingness to show Elektra as an erratic, thrill-seeking and borderline sadistic woman, though I never understand the romantic interest in such tropes. But beyond the characterization, much of the plot of this second arc was underdeveloped. The Hand seemed to appear out of nowhere and the question of their zombie-like “raised from the dead” status was more opaque than necessary.

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My favorite scene of the entire season: two vigilantes flesh out opposing philosophies on justice. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, my largest problems of the whole season came during the final episode, when it felt as though the show took some shortcuts in an attempt to wrap up many story lines at once. Needless to say, this paragraph will be largely *SPOILERS*, so just skip to the next one if you have not yet watched. First, why does Karen continue to go off alone and get into danger? I think it undermines the development of her “street-smart” persona if she continues to be so careless. Castle’s house, the Colonel’s house, abduction by the Hand… is she a strong, enabled character? Or just another damsel in distress? I would prefer the former. Second, the rekindling of Matt and Elektra’s romance seemed abrupt. He resisted romantic interest for most of the show then just decided he loved her again at the end? Eh, kind of lazy. Plus, that dialogue when they were trapped on the roof was oozing cheese. And not in a good, fresh nachos way. Worst of all, though, was the very end. Reminder, this is definitely a *SPOILER*, Elektra’s death, while expected, was kind of odd. The choice to kill her seemed reasonable, but after Daredevil and Stick had seen the Hand resurrect Nobu and all of their ninjas without heartbeats, did they really think burying Elektra was a good idea? They were fighting an enemy that was able to resurrect the dead and they didn’t think to at least cremate the body? A more believable outcome would have been if the Hand carted her body off during the fight. A funeral scene, while maybe more dramatic emotionally, made our heroes look like chumps. Seemed odd.

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Fightin’ some ninjas. NBD. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, this show is mostly great and there are far more positive things to say than criticisms. For instance, the supporting cast was incredibly good. Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are always tremendous, and personally, I loved that the show gave Foggy more of an opportunity to show his strengths as a lawyer and to show him as a brave person, rather than relegating him to the pudgy and pathetic comic relief that the comics so often do. Elden Henson is such a perfect fit for Foggy that the real stars of this Daredevil show continue to be the casting directors. Karen’s character continues to grow, though her inability to anticipate danger and leap headfirst into ridiculously risky situations has become a bit repetitive. I think for a character who is supposed to show some investigative smarts, she sure seems surprised by danger a lot. Next season, they should have her stop being the damsel in distress so much, but Deborah Ann Woll was great, yet again, and continues to show some serious emotional range. Rosario Dawson is always fun and believable, though her part seems to serve more as the binding for Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders crossover than to further individual plots at this point. But, once again, the absolute show-stopping performance of Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was probably the highlight of the season. Unexpected and largely forgotten by the time he showed up mid-season, he instantly reminded viewers of his cold and terrifying performance from the first season.

Overall, the second season isn’t quite as perfect as the first one was, but sequels usually have that problem. It is still a great show and I will certainly watch it again at some point. Much like with the MCU, the cohesiveness of this show’s plot is somewhat impacted by the desire to flesh out the network of characters to build into Defenders and even spin off into their own solo series (Punisher, Elektra). This is somewhat of a reflection of the growing pains of an interconnected universe, and shouldn’t be criticized too much, since the resulting web of shows is sure to continue at a high level of excellence. It has a few weak points, especially toward the end of the season, and certainly more than season one or Jessica Jones, but some tremendous acting and Jon Bernthal’s Punisher help to make this still one of the best shows out there.

Season Two Rating: 8 of 10