“A male perspective on a romance that’s rarely been put to film”
In the dialogue surrounding contemporary television, Master of None occupies a small but interesting space. Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, distributed and funded by Netflix, its 2015 first season was met with critical appreciation and an Emmy for Writing, yet its second — a superior ten-episode batch — has received little fuss upon its launch. Master of None is by its very nature a slow burner; perhaps people will discover the brilliance of these episodes in the coming months. But, by then, Emmy voting might have closed.
Season 1 ended with Ansari’s Dev quitting his New York life and heading to Italy to learn pasta-making. The Thief, Season 2’s electrifying premiere, catches up with him in a picturesque Italian town, surrounded by beautiful Italians, creating sumptuous cuisine. The half-hour Bicycle Thieves tribute, shot in black-and-white and soundtracked by a selection of Ennio Morricone classics, is cultural pornography: everything is perfect, roles are played for another era. That such an escapade has been funded by Netflix is in itself a miracle. Episode 2 sees Dev joined in Italy by both colour cinematography and his “Big Bud” Arnold (Eric Wareheim). Arnold has his moments — he’s relatively likeable when drunk or drugged — but his rapport with Dev brings a tiresome immaturity to the show: they clap and yell and capture incessant Boomerangs, and it’s unclear how aware the filmmakers are of just how irritating this duo can be.
Dev returns to New York (producers gotta get those Governor’s Office grants dammit) and snags a hosting gig on “Clash of the Cupcakes”, befriending a larger-than-life celebrity chef (Bobby Cannavale). As the world learned in Jon Favreau’s Chef (a film not dissimilar to Master of None in its appreciation for culinary perfection), there are few things more enchanting than watching Bobby Cannavale obsess over good food. Yet nothing in Dev’s world is simple, and Chef Jeff is soon accused of sexual harassment, putting Dev in an awkward position (a Times Square billboard declares them “Best Food Friends”).
Dev’s interludes with Arnold and Jeff are arguably the only time Season 2 feels like a true comedy; the majority of these 10 episodes, though light, aren’t played for laughs. The ambitious sixth episode, titled “New York, I Love You”, is reminiscent of FX’s Atlanta as the camera gets lost in the city’s minority communities. We meet a series of profoundly ordinary characters experiencing unexceptional events; linked only to Dev by their shared screening of a Nicolas Cage film called “Death Castle”. One of the figures in this episode is deaf, and her segment is completely silent — no music, no sound effects. It’s a deeply unnerving sequence, and its substance not particularly memorable, but the risk alone is worthy of commendation.
After the acclaim awarded to Season 1’s “Parents”, which examined the immigrant lives of Dev’s parents (played hilariously by Ansari’s own mother and father), Ansari and Yang make two more attempts at progressive parables, yet neither hit the mark as that episode did. “Religion”, the shortest episode of the season, feels incomplete, as if the filmmakers lost interest halfway through conception: the only takeaway is a slight gag about Dev’s love of pork, and it says nothing particularly new about the role of religion in the lives of American Muslims. “Thanksgiving” features a series of Thanksgiving dinners at the family home of Denise (Lena Waithe), Dev’s black lesbian friend, from 1991 to present day, as she discovers her sexuality and reveals it to the women who raised her. It feels very much like the product of two Asian men writing about black families (though Waithe shares a script credit), and the dialogue is painfully heavy-handed. Once again, the show’s level of self-awareness is called into question: an intense moment between Denise and her mother that seems eager to recall Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is interrupted by a squealing Dev.
It’s in the final two episodes that None masters its format. Dev’s beautiful Italian friend Francesca (Alessandra Mastronard) comes to New York, and the hour-long Episode 9 captures their blossoming romance in mesmerising detail: it’s the most moving love story since La La Land, and one of the most flawless TV episodes of the year.
Francesca is an American man’s Italian fantasy — she proposes late night pyjama dance parties, and Dev even envisions her within the frame of L’Avventura. Ansari’s portrayal of Dev throughout the series may be uneven, flitting between quiet romantic and the abrasive Tom Haverford he played on Parks & Recreation, but in the Francesca storyline he shines, imbuing a unique masculinity and showing a male perspective on a love story that’s rarely been put to film.
Both Ansari and Atlanta creator/star Donald Glover are achieving something incredible, telling modern stories traditionally reserved for white stars (namely in the films of Woody Allen) as two non-white leading men. Yet Master of None never once feels like a “non-white show”; the ethnic differences are minute and irrelevant, sewn seamlessly into conversation (Francesca briefly refers to Dev as a “curry person”) but never overshadowing the core humanity of the situations.
The conversations in Master of None don’t always feel genuine — Ansari has a habit of awkwardly spinning to face his co-stars before they go for a walk-and-talk — but the landscape certainly does. The co-existence of Atlanta and Master of None is brilliant and exciting: they explore two completely different areas of US culture, but with similar goals: these ten episodes may be owing to decades’ worth of classic cinema (sometimes overtly, often less so), but Master of None is thrillingly fresh: these stories, with these people, in this way, have not been told before.