Universal Appeal

TV is a fickle creature. I can generally guess about how much I'm going to like a movie or a book, though there have been plenty of surprises, both positive and negative. When it comes to TV, though, those surprises are constant. In fact, I just got two consecutive ones. One was a show I expected to love, and turned out to be pretty good, but nothing special. One I expected to be blah, and turned out to be extraordinary.

The first was Azai Ansari's new Netflix series, Master of None. It's not really about anything except Ansari's character Dev, who's trying to make his way as an actor in New York City. I got a very Diet Louie feel off of this show, as Ansari used the show to tackle a variety of social issues, from feminism to racism to appreciating parents.

Those are all worthy topics, of course, but Master of None is shockingly underwritten. There is absolutely zero subtlety given to anyone's dialogue. Rather than letting the audience reach any sort of conclusion on our own, the show has its characters explicitly state the thesis of the week. A montage of two men walking through the park is given jaunty, happy-go-lucky music, while a single woman has the accompaniment of horror movie music. GET IT?!?! Also, and it brings me no joy to say this, a couple of Dev's friends weren't cast well. Maybe people with an inability to act was cultured on purpose to make the characters more realistic - which actually wound up working pretty well for Denise (Lena Waithe). Kelvin Yu was a mistake, though. He's adorable, but has yet to give a single naturalistic line reading.

If it sounds like I'm bagging on this show too hard, it's only because it didn't live up to the hype it was given. I didn't hate it at all; it was actually fairly enjoyable. I also liked the casting of Ansari's actual parents as Dev's parents (this is another instance where lack of acting ability is not a detriment). I'm just pushing back against Master of None because it's being hailed as one of the great, important shows of 2015, and it doesn't deserve that reputation.

Know what does deserve its stellar reputation? Steven Universe! Well, I'm only talking about Season 1, since that's what's streaming on Hulu. I haven't tracked down access to Season 2 yet. Season 1 is a gobsmacking 52 episodes, but since each episode only runs 15 minutes, they fly by. This is supremely strange show, and the first batch of episodes didn't really do much for me.

See if you can follow this: Steven Universe is about a little boy who lives with three Crystal Gems - immortal women who can use the gems embedded in their bodies to call forth weapons, shapeshift, fuse with each other, and employ various other gifts to defend Earth (and Beach City in particular) from otherworldly threats. Steven is the product of a Crystal Gem mother and human father, and as such, has attributes of both. He's relentlessly energetic and cheerful, and eager to learn more about his incipient powers while forging close friendships with the Gems and the town residents.

And that's just the premise! As I mentioned, the first few episodes were actually kind of annoying. Steven rarely modulated from effusive obnoxiousness, and the plots were just a monster-of-the-week that the Gems would overcome. I decided to keep watching, and thank goodness I did, because those first few episodes turned out to just be setup for the amazing things that came after.

Never have I seen a show veer so effortlessly between goofy cartoon and affecting character drama and back again. In some episode, Steven may just be trying to throw a BBQ so that the Gems can meet their neighbors. In another, Steven or one of the Gems may work out their feelings about where they came from. Here is a show that can be ridiculously silly in one scene, and have me crying in the next one.

It also has some of the best world-building and continuity of any show, ever. This is not one of those shows where everything resets by the end of the episode. Whatever happens is remembered and built upon. As the first season progresses, we learn more and more about the origin and motivations of the Gems, and go along on Steven's journey to hone the powers he inherited from his mother. And when additional Gems start showing up? That's when all hell breaks loose.

If you tried a couple episodes of this show and gave up on it as a childish trifle, I urge you to give it another chance. It may have started off a little rocky, but at this point, I'm a full-fledged fan.

Master of None - Season 1: B
Steven Universe - Season 1: A-


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