Aziz Ansari premiered his hour-long Netflix apology special in a barely audible voice from a crouching position in the corner of a dark stage in Brooklyn. His mostly white audience was rapt and reverential through each moment of silent reflection and public embrace. For past crimes, he forgives himself, he forgives his audience for not forgiving him earlier, and he forgives all those who know not what they did — crying ‘Nazi!’ in crowded theaters, promoting fake news, finding good people on both sides.
We are chastened. We are redeemed. Our prodigal son has returned to us a prophet and yea, unto us his message is clear: ‘Children, we are all assholes in different cultural contexts. Love each other. Now is all we have.’
This depresses me. Aziz Ansari is a talented writer who literally wrote a bestselling book on Modern Romance and who then — amazingly — turned into a cultural pariah and possible sex offender. Why is he lecturing us on the perils of social-media hazing, when he should be exploring the comedy of bad sex? Is it because he never considered the humor from the opposite point of view? Did none of the scientific studies he used for his book displace his sense of authority and sexual license? Does he still not see the humor of his predicament?
Ansari says he’s sorry for what he did, whatever it was. Spike Jonze directs his broody delivery in an appealingly off-hand manner. A sort of#MeToo fireside chat, a political address in sneakers and Metallica-tee. No showmanship here. This is the real Aziz, right now, just as He is. The Real Deal, crossing Lafayette Avenue to the plangent sounds of another pseudo-sex offender, Lou Reed. But no matter. Aziz hopes we all have learned from his scandal, his sacrifice. The dear lamb has a new girlfriend now. She’s Danish, and consensual. He might even marry her, he says in a story about his dying grandmother. He’s sorry she’s white, but he promises they have a real connection. She’s not after his money, he says. She loves him for him, like Mary Poppins.
Finally, our pervert has found his Pollyanna and he’s sticking with her. Through thick and thin, racist showers or sexist Twitter storms. He’s only poking one broad now, and she gets to poke him right back with her weird IUD and plucky sensibility. Hell, white people everywhere are trying to be nicer to minorities, so we should just let this white woman be nice to this minority for us. Because that’s a part of this too, right?
Who gets to fuck Aziz Ansari and be respected in the morning? Some hair and makeup blogger, or a Danish physicist with the looks of a model and an expensive English accent? Who does Aziz cherish and who does he trash? Do the opinions of the women he dates really matter? Or is he just glad we’re back? In our seats, listening. Perhaps I’m being harsh, as he says, newly-woke white people can be exhausting!
Which may explain why this comedy special feels so much like church for wayward liberals, or a summit for the PC police to revise best practices. The comedian is at pains to demonstrate his suspiciously quick ethical evolution over the last year, on his Road To Nowhere comeback-tour, and he would like us to revise our perspective of him in light of it. Gone is the spiffy, peeping-Tom-Haverford of sitcoms long past. It’s 2019, a new cultural era, and Ansari would never make those jokes now. He has trouble even repeating them aloud. And he is hard to hear in many parts of the set, like when he’s mumbling about the perils of a permanent media record and our formidable world wide web.
Aziz Ansari: Right Now is a Portrait of the Artist midway through the celebrity Underworld. It’s been tricky, and Ansari would like us to no longer group him with R. Kelly and Michael Jackson. He’d like us to be kinder to one another; when we see something, to say something. After all, what if those tour-bus people had acted back in the Nineties? What if someone prevented celebrities from harming others and themselves? Oh, and he’s also curious why the moms don’t have better priorities. Stupid moms.
And so Ansari returns with a more acceptable misogyny. Theoretical, entertaining, self-exculpatory, and mass-produced. Something we agree on, like having our cake and eating it too. And speaking of agreement, isn’t it time we agree that Aziz Ansari is just a Crazy Rich Asian who deserves to keep up his appearances? He may have been a cowboy, but he was very nearly the first Indian character on MTV. And that should count for something. You can’t just throw that away. It’s our childhood, despite the trash.