Today, The Cat and I did something we've never done before - binge watched an entire season of a show in one day. Five hours of Aziz Ansari. I started at 4:30 this morning when I couldn't go back to sleep and finished at 3:00 this afternoon, with a few breaks in between. And I have so many thoughts! Spoilers ahead.
There are ten episodes, five hours of entertainment, spanning around two years of story. The series was created by Aziz and a Parks and Rec writer, Alan Yang. The two write most of the episodes and Aziz directs a handful.
Overall, I enjoyed the series. The Cat slept through most of it, but he sleeps through most stuff. Aziz is just a few years older than me and several of his points certainly struck a cord. Millennials without kids or a spouse - this is your show! Enjoy!
First, let's nit pick on the stuff that didn't work. The show, overall, feels lived in. The world he's created is somewhat believable with the friends and relationships that already exist before the pilot begins. The one relationship that grows and develops throughout the season, his romantic relationship with Rachel, is organic. It starts with a one night stand gone awry. She doesn't show up again for a few episodes and over the course of the rest of the season, they develop a serious relationship. Their chemistry is nice and real. Some of his other relationships aren't as successful. Brian, Alan's stand in, never really clicks with Aziz or the rest of the cast. He seems to show up for one episode to share Alan's family's story, and then just hangs out the rest of the season, not really contributing much besides being pretty. The actor isn't that great either, which doesn't help. Arnold and Denise, his weirdo friend and his lesbian friend, respectively, have a better repertoire with Aziz and you can understand why these people are friends. Arnold and Denise themselves have very strong personalities - Arnold's weirdness occasionally creeps into unbelievable territory and Denise's sexual prowess causes eye rolling - but they pop up in the show just enough for them to be enjoyable and not annoying or unrealistic. They are especially enjoyable as a group, like when Aziz and Denise dance to his Nashville date while Arnold talks about internment camps or Denise interrupts their analysis of the theme song from 8 Mile. Also, interesting for millennials - the pop culture sprinkled throughout is enough to be entertaining without annoying. Fine line! His angry black agent, Tastee from Orange is the New Black, is funny - get that Schwimmer money! - and Alice is appropriately insane. I enjoyed his actor friend, Benjamin, once I figured out where I know him - I'll save you the time, he voices Bob in Bob's Burgers. Once I got over that, I enjoyed his role and his chemistry with Aziz. He looks nothing like Bob though... The parents, on the other hand, didn't work for me at all - in interviews, Aziz mentioned how his own parents ended up playing his parents because no one else was good enough. I call bullshit and nepotism. Because his parents were terrible. I'm touched that he included his parents, and I would like to think I would stick my own mom in whenever Netflix gives me a series. But every time they showed up, I thought, wow, these people cannot act. And then I remembered the interview with Aziz (Terry Gross on NPR, always excellent) and I'm pulled out of the show, thinking about the development of the thing instead of consuming the show itself.
Also, about that interview - Alan and Aziz discussed at length their immigrant parents and how they really mined that for the show. Um, it comes up in one episode and that's it. False advertisement!
Aziz himself mostly works. Occasionally, he slips into Tom Haverford, which is distracting and goes against the leading man stuff he's trying to pull off. After years of playing the icon Haverford, he needed to distance himself here more. For the most part, he accomplishes it, and I can completely detach his Master character from Parks. But occasionally, he let's Tom slip in, like the hugs with Arnold. Those Tom moments made me wonder what the hell I was watching.
That's the characters. A few more things before we get into the story.
His apartment. He suffers from Friends syndrome a bit - I have no idea how a struggling actor (he has a few commercials, not much else) can afford that apartment or all those fancy dinners and dates he goes on. But that apartment is honestly great. In the penultimate episode, which takes place almost entirely in his apartment, I got distracted by how awesome it is. The bathroom might be lacking, but the kitchen and the open plan and the hardwood floors. I really love his apartment. But seriously, how does he afford that?
Okay, now on to the story. Aside from the immigrant stuff, he discusses issues that will hit anyone in the late twenty, early thirty range, in the gut. I've seen Aziz's comedy specials and read parts of his book - most of what happens in the show is rehashed versions of this, just in a different format. Because of that, some of it transitions easily to a television show and some of it feels much more forced.
For example, the parents as immigrants stuff. Again, I expected this to be a theme of the show, based on the Terry Gross interview. Instead, it's just the topic of the second episode, "Parents." In it, Dev (Aziz) and his friend Brian (Alan's stand in), have a very awkward, not at all believable, series of discussions about their parents that eventually leads to the two families getting together for a dinner, the two immigrant sets of parents, one from Taiwan and one from India, share stories. This was the successful part - the stories were lovely and honest, probably because they are real stories from Aziz's and Alan's parents. The episode would have been more effective if it had just been the parents' stories. Instead, it's book-ended by two terrible talks with Dev and Brian. The first seems forced, a reason to tell these immigrant stories and get to the dinner. The second is half-hearted as they talk about the sacrifice their parents made and how great their lives are. It's like Aziz and Alan knew they needed to learn something but only had five minutes of run time left.
Also not successful - episode three, "Hot Ticket." Aziz wrote an entire book on how technology has changed relationships and he tried to shoe-horn the whole thing into a thirty minute episode. It doesn't work. He has a few fairly big speeches on it - people are rude! maybe we're all just assholes now! It isn't entertaining and would have been more helpful if Aziz just showed a link to where you can buy his book on Amazon (I found it for you). At least this episode brought back Rachel, who had been missing since the pilot. Which reminds me - great introduction in that pilot, Aziz. Opening on a sex scene and following it with a trip to the pharmacy for Plan B sets expectations for the show and also washes out that Tom Haverford taste from the beginning.
There's an episode where Aziz tries to tackle sexism and another where he tries to tackle racism in entertainment. Both feel like check boxes the creative team felt like they had to check off. Aziz is Indian - we need at least one episode about the struggles of Indians in Hollywood! We've got lesbians and racism, now we need to address sexism! Neither episode is very good and every moment feels forced. Tackling sexism and racism is great but you still need to be entertaining and honest to your show when you do it.
The rest, luckily, is much more successful.
Let's go chronologically. The pilot, titled "Plan B," is really about kids. In it, Aziz meets a friend at a kid's birthday party and ends up watching her own two kiddos for a few hours while Mom runs off to a meeting. The day starts off nice, as he fantasizes about his own future, perfect little children and what a great dad he will be. Then shit gets real. They insist on frozen yogurt, make for awkward bathroom time. Genitals end up on frozen waffles. It's an exhausting, trying day and his fantasy shifts from happy kids to a mess, little hellions sharing his living quarters. Later, his friend returns and they're about to sit down to a great-looking meal, when the kids bring in monstrosities they've created in the kitchen that they are insisting on calling sandwiches. While Mom is game and opts for the kids' 'sandwich' as opposed to the real food, Aziz is honest and digs into the restaurant's offering as the kids look on, horrified. While I think I would play along with the gross sandwiches a bit longer than Aziz did, everything else rings true. Kids are cute in short periods of time. Otherwise, they are demons. Just these little tornadoes destroying everything in their path. I don't know how my friends with kids do it but I think a lot of lying is involved, both to themselves and to other people.
There's also "Old People." In it, Aziz and Arnold hang out with Arnold's grandpa, only to have him die a few days later. Then Aziz befriends Rachel's grandmother, Carol. This is the closest the show had me to crying. That fear of losing grandparents without really knowing them, of being shitty grandchildren, damn. If I hadn't texted my grandmother earlier today, for the first time in weeks, I would have during this episode. Also, there is a robot seal at one point that was sad but probably necessary and totally real. Another thing nice about this - her grandmother, aside from being a total badass in general (that ending with her was so sweet), does not mind that her daughter is dating an Indian man. And his parents don't seem to mind when they finally meet her several episodes later. It's just nice to see an interracial couple where the interracial part doesn't really matter. That says more about race and is more progressive than the entire race episode.
The whole relationship with Rachel is lovely, even in the episodes I'm not crazy about. She's quirky but never verges into Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. He is an ass sometimes (that barbeque sauce bullshit), which is refreshing to see from the writer of the show. The episode focusing on their relationship and its progression - one episode covers about a year thanks to a somewhat gimmicky alarm clock (seriously, do those even exist any more?) - is one of the better ones of the series. Yes, it covers a significant period of time in just half an hour and months pass in literally seconds, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It provides a succinct overview of their relationship, as they start sleeping over and then Rachel eventually moves in. They have the usual arguments (she's messy! he's lazy!) and the usual sex positions, as what was new becomes old and stale. Some of the fights are more serious, like the one about their sex life. The least Tom Haverford moment comes when she's about to go to work and a few snippy words turn in to the suggestion that she's wasting her life in her current role and is this really the career for her. Excuse me while I have an existential crisis. Again, anyone in their late twenties or early thirties should watch this on Friday the 13th. Because it is fucking terrifying. I wanted to give Rachel a hug and then get a hug from Aziz because making career decisions and knowing you're not going to regret everything when you're fifty is hard.
The final episodes, anti-climatically titled "Finale," is excellent as well. If only they had a more creative title. First, Rachel and Aziz attend a wedding. While the happy couple go on and on about how much they love each other in their vows, Aziz has his own fantasy, in which he and Rachel get married, admitting they're not totally sure that they're soul mates but they're in their thirties now so why not. Side note, his fantasies were woefully underused. They only show up here and in the first episode. Otherwise, this is a great sequence. I am a million miles away from getting married but I wonder how many of my friends had these same worries before their wedding day - am I settling? Are we only getting married because the timing is right? This doesn't feel like in the romantic comedies! Later in the episode, Aziz's frustrations lead to a fight with Rachel in which they both write down how certain they are of their relationship. Rachel writes 70%, in part because she didn't want to be lower than Aziz and how perfect and great and real is that behavior - while Aziz writes 80%. Flummoxed that they aren't at 100%, she stays with a friend. Later, Aziz chats with Benjamin, his actor friend who has been married for over twenty years, who is astonished when Aziz is sad about 70%. His response: that's great! That's passing!
And just in a handful of scenes, the paradoxical nature of present day marriage is beautifully summarized - television and movies and books make us think our soul mate is out there, this person who will complete us, who will have us at hello. Who we will be 100% sure about and committed to this relationship. Which is bullshit. It's two people! There is going to be drama and there will be fights. Some days will be 99%, some days 5%. There should probably be doubts on your wedding day - um, that's human! And given the rate of divorce any more, does it really matter?
Combined with the relationship doubt in this episode, there is the career doubt. Rachel goes up for a job that isn't great. Aziz is edited out of a movie he has worked on and admits acting is something he fell into, it's not really his passion. Again, so well done. I say this as someone who likes her job but really just fell into it. I mean, how often am I writing about engineering here?
The thing I might take away from all the Netflix I watched today is the Sylvia Plath poem Aziz quotes at the end of the episode, from The Bell Jar. I'm putting it here because I will want to go back to it later. You readers can do whatever the hell you want but I'm saving this one. The poem is told from the branching point of a fig tree. The writer doesn't know which branch to go along - each branch has its own benefits but choosing one branch means the others are no longer available. While she deliberates, all the figs grow old and die. Sylvia Plath gets being in your late twenties and early thirties.
Rachel makes a big choice. Aziz might be getting ready to marry her, but fuck that, she's going to Tokyo, to do what she's always wanted to do. And she's doing it now, because the opportunity to make these decisions and these chances are getting smaller and smaller. Isn't that right? A friend recently got a divorce and she can't move out of a state for a new job opportunity due to the parenting and divorce laws of her state. Legally, her choices have been narrowed! Then there are the friends who have financially narrowed their choices, with house purchases. Even myself - I bought a car and have to make those monthly car payments. The wiggle room, the explore room, the 'figure out what the hell I'm doing with my life' room, is diminishing. Go for it! Go to Tokyo. I get it. I've never wanted to move to Tokyo but I have wanted to move to Europe and I'm doing it! Sure, mine is very structured and I wouldn't be doing it without the significant help from my company, but I couldn't do it if I had a toddler at home or a husband to deal with or even a mortgage. As we get older, we make more commitments and promises and sign more documents and the room for growth and exploration gets less and less. So go, be free while you can. No regrets! Isn't that the biggest fear? That we get to the end of the road only to realize we have wasted what little time we have? That the road we took was the wrong one.
The finale of the finale is excellent. The show acts as if Aziz is going to Tokyo in a grand romantic gesture, even going so far as to people his flight with Japanese extras. Instead, he's going to Italy to be a pasta chef. Because fuck Rachel. Yes, their relationship was lovely and they had great chemistry. But your life can't be built around a person. You can't expect all your happiness and fulfillment to come from someone else. This is a great way to sow resentment and anger and disappointment. While I'm going to miss Rachel in future seasons, if there are any and she doesn't pop up, I'm so glad to see Aziz doing his own thing. To follow his passions. Because he really loves pasta. Sure, I'm questioning the logistics of this (again, how does he afford this shit), but this was romantic. To himself and his future. Because he deserves it and because not every question is answered by marrying someone, 80% or not.
Which brings me to my final point - I can't imagine this being anything more than a single season. He's in Italy! Maybe they'll skip over that and have him being a chef in New York? But what does Aziz Ansari know about being a chef? And will Rachel come back? More importantly, I've read bits of Aziz's book and seen his stand up. Most of his comedy bits are covered, in one form or another, in this series. All the stuff he's said over this years, is in these ten episodes, five hours. What more is there? He's had years to develop these comedy bits! What more does he have to say?
So we will see what comes. Overall, it's a great series. Honestly, much more insightful than I expected from Tom Haverford. Not at all what I expected really, and I'm glad. It was insightful and honest and funny. I might make my mom just watch it to better understand me... Thanks Aziz!