Master of None and the Burden of Choice

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On the surface, the premise of Netflix’s latest comedy series, Master of None, may seem uninspired. Dev, played by series co-creator Aziz Ansari, is a thirtysomething struggling actor in New York City trying to navigate friendship, romance, his career, and other unwelcome realities of adulthood. But when the series premiered, the praise was immediate and overwhelming. Master of None quickly became the Golden Age of Television’s latest critical darling. Still, when I sat down to give the series a shot, I did so reluctantly. Ansari has never been my favorite, and the last thing I wanted was get hooked on another show that would drain me of my time and emotions.

Let me go ahead and add my voice to the chorus of adulation: Master of None really is that good. The characters are lovable and relatable, the writing is tight and witty, and the cultural analysis of the millennial experience (from a highly privileged perspective, at least) is spot on. The first episode of this ten episode series is solid, but it’s the remarkable second episode, “Parents,” that begins to reveal the depth of what Ansari and co-creator Alan Young (Parks and Recreation writer and producer) are trying to do. Dev, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from India, is going to see X-Men, but his father, Ramesh (played by Ansari’s real-life father), needs help setting up the calendar on his new iPad. “I’ve been calling you to set it up,” Ramesh says, “You never call me back.”

Dev makes a wisecrack about not being Ramesh’s computer guy and leaves. His father, disappointed, has a flashback to his decidedly more difficult childhood in India, as well as his journey of becoming a successful doctor in America, despite the blatant racism and cultural barriers he had to overcome along the way. I won’t ruin it for you, but what follows is a moving, nuanced, and humorous exploration of the complex relationship between parents and children.

Each episode is formatted as a 30-minute self-contained movie, with a loose love story involving Dev and Rachel (the charming Noël Wells) tying the series together. Some episodes cover a matter of days, others months. It’s clear that Ansari has a lot of thoughts about his generation, and Master of None deftly explores relevant topics like racism, sexism, hookup culture, friendship, and romance in the smartphone age. Ansari is a sharp cultural critic, using humor as a vehicle to deliver stinging indictments on how we treat our parents, the elderly, and each other. “We can be shitty to people now, and it’s accepted,” Dev says while deciding whether or not to bail on a woman he invited to a concert. “That’s one of the great things about being alive today.”

However, if one theme shapes Master of None, it’s the idea of choices: how we make them, why we make them, and how they impact our lives. One scene in particular masterfully captures the burden of choices. Dev and his pal Arnold (played by the hilarious Eric Wareheim) decide they want food. “I’m good with whatever,” Arnold says, echoing the unofficial mantra of the millennial generation. They choose tacos, and Dev reads listicles, searches through Yelp reviews, and texts friends, all so he can find the best tacos in New York City. They finally pick a taco truck–only to discover that the tacos are sold out. “What am I supposed to do now, go eat the second best taco?” Dev asks, clearly offended at the idea of lowering himself to that level. Arnold reminds Dev that he spent 45 minutes looking for the best taco, and if he had made up his mind sooner, they probably wouldn’t be leaving hungry.

This is FOBO: the constant fear that there are always going to be better options out there. It is real, and it is paralyzing. To be sure, FOBO is a problem of the privileged—the people who have the luxury of deciding among a handful of options for even the most mundane decisions. We never learn how a struggling actor like Dev, whose most significant acting gig was a Go-Gurt commercial, can afford a spacious apartment and drinks at trendy bars every night, but it’s safe to assume his doctor father provides at least some financial support. Throughout the show, Dev attempts to eliminate all forms of risk from his life, always seeking the safe route, the one he thinks he won’t regret. This is, of course, impossible. There are no completely safe options, no perfect choices. Each choice we make comes with benefits and consequences.

While the crippling fear of the existence of better options is relatively harmless when tacos are at stake, its impact is felt more heavily when love and careers are on the line. In the final episode, Dev and Rachel are at a crossroads in their relationship, and neither of them can decide if they want to move forward or call the whole thing off. They don’t want to lose the freedom to do spontaneous things, like dye their hair red and move to Tokyo on a whim. They aren’t ready to close the door on every other possibility. Dev is desperately looking for reassurance that being with Rachel is his best option.

While he’s trying to sort through what he’s feeling, Dev ponders Sylvia Plath’s analogy of a fig tree from The Bell Jar, which helps articulate the anxiety that comes with an unlimited number of options:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

In one way or another, Plath’s words ring true to all of us. In the past year I’ve graduated from college and gotten married, and like Dev, I’ve often felt like I’m drowning in choices, terrified of making the wrong one. Do I take that job in a big city? What if we wake up in 20 years and discover we don’t really like each other anymore? Will I have the freedom to pursue certain passions? If we don’t move overseas now, will we ever? Is it time to go to grad school? Should we get a dog?

It’s not simply a matter of saying yes to certain choices; it’s saying no to all the others. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” There will always be the lingering what ifs that wake us up at 2 a.m., but If we waited for absolute certainty, we would become stagnant, frozen. And so you do the only thing you can do: try to tease out what life might look like five, six, seven, years down the road, and you face the uncertainty of it all, and you make a choice.

While Dev is fighting to keep every option on the table for as long as possible, he frequently encounters people whose lives have been enriched by making choices and sticking with them. One of his acting pals, Benjamin, has remained faithful to his wife for 23 years. He reminds Dev of the futility of waiting for a relationship to feel 100 percent right before committing. “Nobody is at 100,” Benjamin says. “I’m in a great marriage, and sometimes we’re at 90, but other times we’re at 20 or 30. It goes up and down. It’s not one number all the time.” Even Dev’s parents, whose arranged marriage in India is the antithesis of the myriad romantic options that lay before Dev, seem to have a happy, faithful, and fulfilling relationship. 

In the series finale, Dev and Rachel both make the spontaneous, yet much easier, choices that close the fewest number of doors. Dev seems happy with his decision. Who knows, maybe he really is! But it’s hard not to see the shallowness of it all and feel sad for him. They’re embarking on journeys worth Instagramming, but missing out on the joy that comes with hard-earned intimacy.

In many ways, Dev is representative of a generation that doesn’t know what it wants. We laugh at his desperate, and futile, search for tacos because we’ve all been there before. On a more existential level, when Dev and Rachel wonder if there’s something better out there for them, we’re reminded of our own fears and doubts when it comes to identity-forming issues like romance, careers, friendships, and faith. With subtlety, humor, and a heavy dose of honesty, Master of None explores the fear of better options, and invites us to examine the ways in which our own fears may be dictating the decisions we make.

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Cort Gatliff

Cort Gatliff is a copywriter living in Birmingham. He studied journalism and English literature at the University of Tennessee. You can follow him on Twitter @cortgatliff.