The Unfinished Evolution of Aziz Ansari

The Unfinished Evolution of Aziz Ansari

The Unfinished Evolution of Aziz Ansari

With the latest season of Master of None, the comedian and director’s attempt at a reboot of his creative approach reveals the limits of his perspective.


In 2009, comedian Aziz Ansari closed his first stand-up special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, with a story about attending an R. Kelly concert. The five-minute bit folds in anecdotes about the R&B singer’s onstage antics and concludes with an impression that electrifies the crowd. But the part of the joke I remember most is when he talks about walking through the concert with his friend and collaborator Jason Woliner. Jason tells him, “Hey Aziz, me and you are the only two white people at this concert.” Aziz responds, “First of all, Jason, I’m not white. Second of all, you’re the only white guy at this concert. We might kill you, Jason!”

It’s a tossed-off joke that encapsulates why I liked Ansari as a teenager in the late 2000s. It was less the fact that he was an Indian American in the spotlight and more about how he engaged with his race. In his stand-up, as well as on the low-budget sketch series Human Giant he starred in and cocreated with Woliner and fellow comedians Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer, Ansari never felt the need to aggressively spotlight the racial elephant in the room. He discussed it casually and with the confidence of an assimilated first-generation immigrant raised on American pop culture. (I remember being particularly tickled by the fact that he and I were listening to the same indie rock records at the same time.) I never read this as a premeditated elision on his part. I saw it as a tacit acknowledgement that there was no need to speak to his difference because doing so would lend credence to the false assumption that he shouldn’t be there at all. His down-to-earth persona successfully rendered the cover for Intimate Moments, which features him holding a snifter of brandy in a tailored suit standing in front of an enormous taxidermied bear in a mahogany-paneled room, an ironic sight gag.

This front came to be unsustainable. Ansari’s profile rose considerably with a lead role on an acclaimed network sitcom (Parks and Recreation) and a string of supporting turns in studio comedies. He began performing stand-up to large arenas where his nascent Chris Rock–inspired approach to comedy craft appropriately prospered. He slowly transformed from a comic whose jokes hinged on the absurdity of someone like him hanging onto the fringes of celebrity culture into a public figure who could conceivably be friends with people like Kanye West. His image became more refined over the years, as if there were a conscious attempt to become the smooth operator on that Intimate Moments cover. This ambition culminated with his Netflix series Master of None, which stars him playing Dev, an actor in his early 30s navigating single life in New York City.

As Ansari became more ubiquitous, my interest in him turned tepid: At its best, Master of None’s first two seasons were pleasant, sometimes funny, occasionally sweet, and featured a few standout episodes. At the same time, the show often played like an elaborate Tinder profile for Ansari, an outlet for him to look cool, eat well in beautiful locales, and date beautiful women with light comedy and lighter drama to justify the indulgence. The series also became a playground for Ansari’s clumsy allyship. Well-intentioned episodes like “Ladies and Gentlemen,” where Dev receives a crash course in male privilege and sexist microaggressions, could come off as didactic and self-congratulatory. Throughout the series, Ansari evinced a desire to please that was previously obscured, or at least offset, by other aspects of his career. Sometimes Master of None made good-faith efforts at examining race or religion, probably because they came from a personal place, but his fixation on positioning himself on the “correct” side of the sociopolitical zeitgeist betrayed a dramatic pledge of fealty to a presumed white, liberal audience. A charitable reading of this shift was a sincere attempt to “grow” through his work. In practice, however, it often felt like a performance of progressive virtue, constantly trying to hit the proper notes without ever really playing the music.

Though it would be inaccurate to suggest a clean, one-to-one relationship between the real Ansari and his character in Master of None, Ansari as well as cocreator Alan Yang clearly mined their respective autobiographies for the series. In a way, Ansari inverts the tradition of comics crafting self-deprecating alter-egos to poke fun at themselves, and the results are discomfiting: His fictional counterpart’s sensitivity and progressive bona fides felt overly rehearsed. To my eyes, there’s a real desire to be portrayed as a cosmopolitan figure with a loftier identity than “comic.” This isn’t an ignoble objective in and of itself, but it’s awkward when there’s no attempt to disguise such a motivation.

Ansari’s latest special, Aziz Ansari: Right Now, arrived on Netflix one year after he was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman who relayed her story of an unpleasant date with the comic to Visibly chastened by the experience, Ansari arrives on stage to the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” wearing a Metallica T-shirt and jeans instead of a suit. He sits on a stool and frequently speaks in a hushed tone. He mostly forgoes the performative braggadocio typical of his previous specials for a more conservational approach. Spike Jonze captures him in 16mm closeup in an attempt to lend him some grace. These are calculated moves on his part, an effort to rehabilitate or modulate his established persona: It’s a vision of Ansari if he had remained in touch with his more modest alt-comedy roots. He literally looks more comfortable.

He delivers a solid set with some strong moments, including a fair amount of engaging crowd work that never reads like he’s filling time, but the performance resides under a strange, muted cloud. At the top of the show, Ansari briefly addresses the accusation against him in broad yet sincere terms. He doesn’t excuse his behavior, nor does he say anything except the bare minimum about the situation. However, more potently, he also discusses routines from his previous specials that have aged poorly, like the R. Kelly story. He pokes fun at himself (“Like, all the wording I used was the worst possible wording”) and acknowledges that some of his old jokes have curdled without over-excoriating himself for it, recognizing that comedy is as much about phrasing as it is a snapshot of the cultural moment when it’s performed.

At the end of the show, Ansari expresses gratitude to the crowd because he “saw the world where he doesn’t ever get to do this again” and that, in a way, it “felt like he died.” However, he was glad that “the old Aziz” was gone, because his former self was always looking forward instead of taking stock. Ansari does himself no favors by employing this melodramatic framework, because his larger point has power: A public humiliation at the height of a cultural reckoning regarding sex and power provided him with a different perspective on his personal values and made him reexamine his professional ambition. Like in Master of None, one might wonder if this conciliatory performance was overly rehearsed as well. Nevertheless, it made me curious what, if anything, was in store for him.

Master of None’s third season recently premiered on Netflix with little fanfare or advance warning after a four-year hiatus. Titled Master of None Presents: Moments in Love, it stars Lena Waithe, who plays Dev’s Black queer friend Denise, previously the focus of the Emmy-award winning second season episode “Thanksgiving,” which chronicles the character’s coming-out story. In the new season, Denise, now a successful novelist struggling to write a second book, lives in a beautiful cottage in upstate New York with her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). Over the course of five episodes, Ansari, who directs and cowrote the season with Waithe, follows the couple’s relationship as it slowly collapses after they decide to have a child together. Though Dev appears in the first episode and briefly in the third, Ansari is not a major on-screen presence in the season.

Ansari’s general absence, the change in setting, and the shift in character focus aren’t the only aspects that separate Moments in Love from Master of None’s previous two seasons. There’s a marked tonal shift as well, from a light comedy-drama with a romantic core to a serious adult drama. Though the series was never a straightforward comedy, its playful attitude has been exchanged for a self-consciously “mature” mood. This comes through in the subject matter, which involves infidelity and miscarriage and the complications of in-vitro fertilization, but it’s also exhibited in Ansari’s formal choices. The entire season is primarily filmed in lengthy, static single takes. He emphasizes the spaces that Denise and Alice move through and the silences that pass between them. He lingers on the good moments between them and the ugly moments that percolate over time. The primary referent appears to be Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, befitting the shared subject matter, but Ansari could easily be swiping from any Criterion Collection filmmaker who employs a master-shot style (Ozu, Haneke, Akerman, etc.).

As much as Master of None changes, the more it stays the same. Ansari falls into the same trap he did in the second season by appropriating filmmakers more talented than he is, which only serves to highlight the pitfalls in his work by comparison. In the second season, he liberally borrowed from the Italian film canon—Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini—as well as the French New Wave, presumably to capture the wide-screen cinematic feeling of traveling to a new country or falling in love. (He makes this idea extra explicit by using a wide-screen aspect ratio as well.) It’s one thing to include a cheeky homage, but to superficially parrot a coterie of master filmmakers’ styles to provide a prestige sheen is a fool’s errand, a misguided pretension.

It’s even worse in the third season because it only spotlights the self-seriousness of the writing. Master-shot filmmaking asks a lot from a viewer, mainly patience and rigorous attention, which means that either the frame itself or the action within the frame must be engaging. Unfortunately, Moments in Love features little of either. Ansari’s compositions are clean but dull, and while Denise and Alicia are sensitively rendered on the page, Waithe and Ackie rarely compel as a pair. More often than not, they seem like they represent the idea of a relationship rather than a lived-in one. We’re supposed to be witnessing two people desperately playing house while ignoring the self-evident fissures in their relationship. Instead, Moments of Love mostly features interminable single shots of a lifeless couple.

The season’s obvious standout is its fourth episode, which follows Alicia as she goes through the highs and lows of IVF with only a sympathetic nurse to accompany her in her journey. Ackie rises to the occasion and provides a committed acting showcase, sensitively conveying Alicia’s courage as well as her considerable fear. The episode features many of the problems that dog the rest of the season, mainly the plodding pace, but Ackie can command the frame and draw an audience into her emotional domain. Her scenes with Waithe, which dominate more than half the season, are much less successful. Waithe coasts on laid-back swagger and hits the same emotional beats within the same narrow register while Ackie alternates between being a partner and foil for that energy. The couple’s fundamental unbelievability combined with Ansari’s auteur posturing makes the attempts at realism moot.

It’s possible to view Ansari’s adjustments to the series, including decentering himself on screen, as another attempt to change with the times, an approach introduced in Aziz Ansari: Right Now. Yet this concerted effort to evolve in the public eye only raises questions about what type of “evolution” it is and whether it’s shallow or meaningful. As a younger man, I responded to Ansari’s wide-eyed jester routine because he was something of an outsider. But after years of him wearing ill-fitting insider’s clothing, the question remains: Is he offering a sincere personal inquiry or merely trying to keep up with fluctuating standards of goodness?

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