On paper, Aziz Ansari’s Dev isn’t entirely dissimilar from Ansari’s Parks And Recreation character Tom Haverford. He loves gnocchi and gelato and bounce houses. But Tom was a manchild painted in broad strokes. He was an over-the-top parody, and the extremity of his foolishness often made the character grating. With his new Netflix series Master Of None, Ansari gets to play a much more grounded character. Dev allows Ansari to show more range and play with more emotional complexity than his role on Parks ever allowed. If his stand-up is any indication, he’s playing quite close to himself. With Master Of None, Ansari joins the club of television’s auteurs, and he proves quite quickly that he has the depth and potency to lead a show.

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Every scene in “Plan B” has something to offer on its own, starting with the cold open that shows Dev in bed with Rachel, a girl he has recently met (played by former Saturday Night Live featured player Noël Wells). The aforementioned broken condom makes it debut, and the scene unfolds into a funny but completely organic look at modern hook-up culture as Dev and Rachel consult the internet for the truth about precum and then eventually take an UberX to the drugstore to pick up some Plan B and Martinelli’s apple juice. Again, the sequence works on its own, especially because of strong performances from Wells and Ansari, whose delivery of “my treat” is effortlessly funny.

But the broken condom also sets off the chain of the events at the heart of “Plan B.” It starts to make Dev think about what his life would be like with a kid in it, a feeling that grows as he attends his friend’s baby’s birthday and then even more when he has to look after his other friend Amanda’s (Maria Dizzia) kids for a couple hours. It’s a very natural progression of events, all built around the central theme of Dev’s anxiety about the future. The writing, from Ansari and his co-creator, Parks And Recreation’s Alan Yang, is incredibly tight, with every scene standing on its own but also contributing to the overall narrative. Nothing feels out of place, but even more than that, there’s a fluidity to it, a sense that we’re watching this protagonist live his life and not just a series of funny situations.

And that’s because amid the jokes and the fantasy sequences, there’s a heavy dose of realism to the writing. Dev’s interactions with the children, especially, feel incredibly naturalistic to the point where I wondered how much of it was scripted. The kids say weird things like real-life kids do. They haven’t been sanitized in the way kids on television often are, but their behavior isn’t too exaggerated either. Dev’s discomfort about the bathroom situation is wonderfully awkward, but the comedy here is so unembellished in its execution, which of course makes it all the more awkward.

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Over the course of the episode, Dev goes from thinking kids ruin lives to a romanticized notion of starting a family back to the realization that kids are monsters. The episode goes dark, but it doesn’t overreach by making any definitive, one-size-fits-all conclusions about parenthood. There are downsides to being the perpetual bachelor, but there are also very clear consequences of having children. Dev ends up even more confused about happiness and wholeness at episode’s end, but he knows that, for now, he’d definitely rather be eating a sandwich from Parm than a peanut butter and lettuce sandwich topped with ketchup.

One of the nice surprises here is that Dev isn’t all that bad with kids. In fact, he’s great with them when he first runs into Amanda at the party. But even on his own, he’s unprepared but not totally terrible at watching them. Again, I think Dev largely avoids being the typical brand of “manchild.” He’s more than that. He certainly hasn’t fully grown up, as evidenced by his unadulterated amusement about a toy dinosaur, but he isn’t some boyish idiot. Ansari and Yang could have easily written him as painfully inept when it comes to the kids, but they go a much more nuanced route. On a more conventional sitcom, Dev would have lost complete control of Grant and Lila, who would have been even more monstrous than they are here just to oversell the joke. Even though Dev feels like he got way in over his head, Amanda assures him he did a fine job. After all, there isn’t any blood. While it doesn’t let him win (unless you count a mouthful of Parm a win, which maybe I should), Master Of None doesn’t make a complete punching bag out of Dev.

With its stark realism even within a humorous world, “Plan B” certainly has shades of Louie to it, especially as it slowly descends into darkness. It’s easy to imagine an episode of Louie with almost the exact same plot beats. But this isn’t Ansari does Louie. Just as Louis C.K.’s voice is so definitive of his FX series, so is Ansari’s voice of Master Of None. There’s a sweetness here that balances out some of the cynicism. Ansari has a clear point of view that comes through in both the writing and his portrayal of Dev. “Plan B” takes on a storyline that plenty of comedies have tackled on television and manages to still feel fresh.

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Stray observations

  • The editing for those fantasy sequences is on point.
  • “Don’t yell out people’s ethnicities.”
  • Yo, shout out to Martinelli’s apple juice. That juice is indeed very tight.
  • “Highlight of my year was when I crashed Zachary Quinto’s Halloween party.”
  • I don’t doubt for a second that Combos for life would change someone.
  • The direction is beautiful and also contributes to the show’s realism, which isn’t surprising since it comes from Smashed director James Ponsoldt, who particularly excels at intimate camerawork that makes you feel really emotionally close to the characters.
  • This is small, but I like the moment when Dev struggled to remember the word “fodder.” Again, it’s just very slice-of-life but also oddly funny.

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