Modern Love

Image result for master of none season two

Courtesy Netflix

There is way too much television content out there right now. While this could be an understatement, consider the following: “Comedians portraying a fictional version of themselves” is now a comedy subgenre. At least five of these shows have premiered since 2010, and there are probably more examples if you stretch the definition a bit[1]. All are set in urban environments and feature a famous comedian playing a not-yet-famous performer who is unlucky in love and life, and probably depressed as a result.

These shows are meta as hell, but they still expect the audience to empathize with the characters as if they were not just stand-ins for the comedians. It seems doubtful anyone would have understood how this could become a trend as recently as ten years ago, but now standup is practically a stepping stone to creating dramedies, not helming a sitcom. Comedians are now expected to be auteurs.

Aziz Ansari’s Master of None returned with a new season a few days ago, and it feels most akin to the show that truly started this trend, Louis CK’s Louie[2]. CK and Ansari both masterfully channel the same, neverending frustration of searching for a perfect partner, while also paying tribute the hilarious oddities and breathtaking beauty offered by Manhattan’s diverse expanse[3].

Anyone familiar with Woody Allen’s work can immediately tell where CK and Ansari got the idea for these cinematic walk-and-talk urban adventure date stories from. In the 70s, Allen transitioned from neurotic New York comedian to neurotic-yet-acclaimed filmmaker by artfully chronicling semi-autobiographical stories of his (increasingly, uh…problematic) love life. Sounds familiar, no?

Likewise, it is probably safe to assume most people with a television feel extremely comfortable watching a few fictional friends in a Manhattan restaurant sharing their self-obsessed accounts of dating failures. After all, Seinfeld has been in syndication for well over a decade, and @SeinfeldToday has been a Twitter account for nearly half of one. The largest material change between Jerry’s foursome and Aziz’s character Dev’s fictional group of friends is that now the Kramer of the group does not bust through the apartment door with a strange proclamation; instead, he just sends the group a weird all-caps text about his latest crazy scheme.

On one hand, pointing out these similarities feels like conceding that these shows are undeniably derivative of seminal works by comedians from previous generations, and therefore somewhat disposable. On the other hand, in the right hands, the formula just really worksMaster of None might be the best dramedy created by a comedian yet, primarily because Aziz is the youngest person to pull this off, and so his perspective most accurately reflects the title of his 2015 book, Modern Romance.

Never is this view more apparent than during the brilliant fourth episode of Master of None’s second season, “First Date,” which might as well have been called “Tinder.” Once the cross-cutting conceit kicks in and the viewer experiences the information overload of a dozen first dates at once, they feel the same adrenaline rush that a Tinder match can give along with the same crushing disappointment served by actually meeting the cute profiles IRL. Dev’s dates all offer exciting potential before ceding to awkward goodbyes, just at varying paces.

The episode is hilarious and also a bit depressing because it so accurate and relatable. It also could only come from the mind of a young person in the 2010s. It might be the most relevant document of present urban singe life in existence. This technology would have scrambled Woody Allen’s libido so much, he probably would have made five consecutive movies about it. Aziz tackles the subject in half an hour and quickly moves on to more traditional (and more taboo) romantic pursuits, but it feels like the fatigue that comes from endless swipes could take up at least an entire season of television.

While both Louie and Master of None could be uncharitably dismissed as Annie Hall + Seinfeld, each creator does bring something new and personal to the table. Louis brings the emotional baggage that comes with being a divorced father. Aziz explores the modern dilemma: the choice paradox. How can anyone be decisive about anything, let alone happily committed to a relationship, when every choice in the world is now merely a swipe away in everyone’s pocket[4]?

Neither offers anything remotely resembling a prescription, largely because, sadly, there is no universal solution to dilemmas of the heart. You can brainstorm a way to seduce an unattainable lover with your friends all you want, and you still might end up heartbroken. You can drown your sorrows in the most delicious food offered by a nearby restaurant, but you will be hungry and forlorn again in no time. You can find a great match and commit to a relationship, only to spend enough time with the person to feel the exciting fresh romance fade, leaving a union hopefully kept alive by more than social obligation or fear of the unknown.

This might seem like a depressing note to end on, but it seems fitting since these shows, unlike Hollywood, tend to embrace life having more loose ends than happy endings. Heartbreak and loss are far more common in reality than riding off into the sunset with a weirdly permanent smile. Still, it is important to note how the laughs are still there, and they make the heavy meal much easier to stomach. A character in a Woody Allen film once mused, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”[5]. While you wait for the time to pass, there’s always an upcoming barbecue festival to attend. If that is not your thing, then maybe try your Netflix queue.

*     *     *

[1] Louie, Maron, Legit, Master of None, and Crashing. Girls and Atlanta don’t quite count, but they’re close. In theaters, Chris Rock used this formula for Top Five (with a bit of Louis CK’s help, of course)

[2] Curb Your Enthusiasm was more of a bridge between sitcoms and this format, since Larry David is already successful in the world of that show, and the audience still laughs at him rather than pities him when things go terribly.

[3] The affordability of these Manhattan adventures is a subject largely ignored by these characters.

[4] This theme pervades almost every choice made by Aziz’s character Dev on the show. In season one, he could barely choose a taco truck. In season two, he’s pitching a Food TV show in which he’s constantly traveling to try cuisines of different cultures. Beneath the hunger is an obvious (and ominous?) sign that Dev is wary of putting roots down anywhere. One episode even ends perfectly with David Bowie’s “A New Career in a New Town.”

[5] The quote apparently did not originate in Allen’s mind, which is a reminder that pretty much all great art is probably somehow “ripping off” a previous generation’s great art.

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