Television Review: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have outdone themselves in the brilliant second season of “Master of None”.
When “Master of None” arrived on Netflix back in 2015, it was easy to feel like the show basically came out of nowhere. This is somewhat paradoxical when you consider that the show’s star (and writer/director/showrunner) Aziz Ansari, has been everywhere this past decade, emerging as a live-wire second banana on sitcoms like “Parks & Recreation,” as well popping up in a relatively thankless capacity in Apatow-produced yukfests “Get Him to the Greek” and “I Love You, Man”. He’s done stand-up specials, hosted SNL, partied with Kanye West and enraged Chris Brown. By any metric, the guy already had a pretty impressive resume before this show.
Ansari’s hyper-caffeinated, endearing-goofball routine was certainly winning in conservative doses early in his career. But I don’t think any of us expected that he was as capable of producing something as raw and confessional as “Master of None”. The show’s first season masterfully updated the emerging television trend of comedy as loose autobiography: the kind practiced by Woody Allen during his brilliant 70’s/80’s run, and more recently, in Louis C.K.’s paradigm-shifting 30-minute comedy “Louie”.
“Master of None” frequently gets compared to melancholic behavioral dramedies like “Girls” and “Love,” and while the show is similarly preoccupied with the daydreams and hang-ups of oversexed city-dwellers, that is where the similarities begin and end. For one, “Master of None” has, since its inception, been informed by Ansari’s status as an Indian-American man in an overwhelmingly Caucasian professional practice. Two of season one’s highlights — “Parents,” where Ansari’s perpetually stoked doppelganger Dev Shah confronts his own privilege through the unsentimental immigrant anecdotes of his mother and father, as well as the combustively funny “Indians on TV” — were each contained, 30-minute short stories that explicitly tackled themes of xenophobia and the separation can feel from one’s own culture. The show is also beautifully directed: there is a crispness to its visual language, and a sophistication to the esoteric soundtrack cuts (everything from the Walker Brothers to Italian pop and D’Angelo gets a workout here), that makes each episode feel more like arthouse cinema than just another comedy about a 20-something creative drifting through the big city.
Season one of “Master of None” ended with Dev boarding a one-way plane to Italy in an impulsive moment of crisis. His career as an actor seemed to be in a state of permanent limbo, and his sort-of relationship with Rachel (the lovely Noel Wells) had gone up in flames. Would season two follow Dev as he trotted across the globe, in search of love and pasta? Did Ansari and series co-creator and sometimes-director Alan Yang even think they were going to get a season two? In its second season, the rich well of humanity in “Master of None” is so deep that it exposes the hollow and schematic process of watching-TV-as-editorializing. This unfortunate byproduct of fanboy culture has seeped into the viewing practices of today’s audiences, though it’s easier to pinpoint popular examples in high-pedigree dramas such as “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld”.
In “Master of None,” I, for one, am never really watching because I’m itching to see where Dev’s boundless stomach and free-floating curiosity will take him. No, I watch the show because it offers a very particular kind of insight — one that’s resolutely different then any comedy (and indeed, any drama) currently on television. It is a decidedly modern kind of comedy that is very clued-in and perceptive as to the way we live, love and interact now.
The world of “Master of None” is one where dates are arranged through Tinder and people only smoke weed pens and everyone is constantly staring at their smartphones. It’s one where every lonely soul is seen swiping right in search of love, taking photos of their food and obsessing over where to get the best bowl of Ramen, all while life threatens to race right past them. Ansari has emphasized the amount of care and detail that goes into making this show as naturalistic as it is — no small degree of which, I assume, comes from working with his parents (both playing themselves, to hilarious and moving effect) and also his brother (who co-wrote “Parents,” season one’s best episode, and has contributed again to season two). Ansari has stated in interviews that he wouldn’t want “Master of None” to outstay its welcome, and he’s even gone so far as to suggest that the show’s new batch of episodes might be its swan song.
That would be a shame. While I would hate to see the show grind itself into repetitious tedium as so many promising comedies have, the prospect of spending one more season with Dev and his friends is one that I would have a hard time passing up. In a stroke of what can only be considered genius, “Master of None” season two turns out to be funnier, more touching, more visually ambitious, and altogether more satisfying than its first season. In this superb new batch of episodes, Ansari and Yang continue to probe modern romantic anomie with a wisdom and depth that’s uncommon for men their age (it should also be noted that Ansari’s unapologetic foodie obsession grows to greater heights here, with pasta shots that will have you checking red-eye prices to Italy at inopportune times in the day). I must admit, I half-expected the show’s creators to stumble, to falter, to give into the sophomore slump. I could not be more thrilled that Ansari and Yang, and of course, the cast and crew, have managed to prove me wrong. It may be too early to say (it’s only May, after all), but it’s looking like “Master of None” will be placing high on my top ten of the year list once again.
Season two opens in gorgeous black-and-white, with an extended low-angle pan that lingers lovingly over pasta cookbooks and Criterion DVDs from the likes of Vittoria de Sica and Michelangelo Antonioni (“The Bicycle Thieves” and “La Notte,” natch). In this opening, Ansari — who directed the first two episodes — isn’t just shifting his stylistic compass from season one’s “Manhattan” fixation to Italian neo-realism. He’s also letting us know, in one fluid visual moment, where exactly Dev Shah has been since the concluding events of the first season. Like many of the characters in these kinds of stories, Dev is drifting. In this case, he’s drifting through the city of Modena, Italy: depicted here as one of those colorful and charming village communes where all the neighbors shout to each other through their adjacent windows and grandmas invite the local policemen in to taste their lasagna.
Our hero routine hasn’t changed a whole lot: Dev is now taking pasta-making classes (possibly to fuel what appears to be a pasta addiction) and at one point, he even makes an offhand crack that he’ll open his own shop in New York one day. His social circle, meanwhile, has dwindled. He has a small circle of friends, including a radiant local beauty named Francesca, but they’re mostly of a superficial sort — and, as if to further exacerbate Dev’s growing loneliness, they’re all coupled up. It isn’t until Dev receives a fateful visit from his “Big Bud,” Arnold (Eric Wareheim, evoking a kind of bemused innocence through a hulking grizzly-bear frame), that he gets the shake-up in his routine that he needs. The “Big Bud/Lil’ Bud” reunion will have “Master of None” fans wishing they could spend a day with Dev and Arnold as they scoot around the Italian countryside on Vespas, dine at gourmet Osterias, sip Spritzes, and literally get themselves stuck in the kind of impossibly narrow Italian alleyways that mostly exists in the traveler’s imagination.
Halfway through “Master of None’s” second season, Ansari and Yang begin to take more radical chances with form, often reaping even greater narrative rewards than they did the first time around. “Religion,” the third chapter, is another look into the life of Dev’s parents, with the episode’s main conflict revolving around Dev’s desire to eat pork versus his parent’s religiously-rooted refusal of the very same act (the episode also begins with the single greatest use of Tupac Shakur’s “Only God Can Judge Me” ever, but that’s mostly incidental). Like “Parents” in season one, “Religion” sees Ansari stepping outside of the solipsistic millennial cocoon that can inhibit the better impulses of someone like Lena Dunham, and exuding a wisdom that betrays the youthful style of his comedy. Religion and ethnic identity has always been a big part of this show, but watching the normally apathetic Dev being forced to grapple with his own cultural legacy isn’t just funny: it’s truly wonderful, and it has the capacity to teach us about ourselves. One of my only complaints about “Master of None’s” first season was that there wasn’t enough Shoukath Ansari (Aziz’s father), and those of us who wanted more of him in a second season will be delighted to know that Dev’s dad still doesn’t know how to use his iPad, and his micro-obsession with ordering certain food items continues unabated. A later scene where Dev’s dad (who, like Ansari’s real-life old man, is a doctor) must explain to a worried patient why her husband stuck an electric toothbrush up his ass had me on the floor with laughter.
“First Date,” the fourth episode, is one of “Master of None’s” most formally layered episodes. Directed by Wareheim, the episode focuses almost solely on Dev as he navigates a series of romantic first encounters that run the range from promising to vaguely unfulfilling and, finally, soul-crushing. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: the deftness with which Wareheim bounces from conversation to conversation and partner to partner, or the show’s typically devastating take on the hollow nature of our age of digital romance (has there ever been a more haunting use of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” than in the opening titles of this episode?).
Sexual mishaps and attempts at earnest romance can feel labored in some sitcoms because the writers don’t always understand the greater implications of the emotions at play. This is a dilemma that “Master of None” thankfully sidesteps. Don’t believe me? See the ingenious scene that ends “First Date,” where Dev lambasts a recent one-night stand for keeping a racist tchotchke on her bedside counter. The girl in question seems to be operating from a place of privileged white obliviousness rather than outright malice, but she does ask a damning and worthwhile question: is Dev a hypocrite for still consenting to sleep with her? “It doesn’t reflect great on my principals” is the reply she gets — and it’s a line that’s more cutting and indicative of who Dev Shah is than either of them might be willing to admit.
There are other highlights in this second season, almost too many to count. Bobby Cannavale — guest-starring as an Anthony Bourdain-style rock n’ roll chef named Chef Jeff, whom Dev meets during his stint as the host of a cooking show called “Clash of the Cupcakes” — is so funny and relaxed that he might actually win back the goodwill of the many critics who trashed his underrated performance in HBO’s “Vinyl”. In “Master of None,” Cannavale confirms what I’ve long suspected: that he’s a wildly gifted performer whose outsized gifts are perhaps more suited to comedy than antihero drama.
Cannavale’s episodes bristle with wound-up comic energy but the season’s eighth chapter, “Thanksgiving,” might just be its piece de resistance. Through a series of Thanksgiving dinners from the 90’s to the present day, we observe the sexual awakening of Denise (Dev’s lesbian friend played by the outstanding actress and writer Lena Waithe), and how she chooses to come out to her mother, played with gravitas and heartache by the great Angela Bassett. “Thanksgiving” is laced with potent subtext about race and sexuality, and the episode’s construct is almost as daring as its radical perspective. The season’s sixth episode, “New York, I Love You,” boldly disbands from Dev and his buds for an entire episode while ping-ponging from one manic street encounter to the next in a fashion that suggests this is “Master of None’s” answer to Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours”.
I don’t want to sound like I’m up on my moral high horse when it comes to a show that includes detailed dissections of Diane Lane movies and another scene where a large, angry man is repeatedly fed slices of melon in order to keep calm. “Master of None” is still a comedy, even when it’s serious. In fact, it’s a comedy especially when it’s serious. The show tackles loaded, thorny issues head-on without ever coming off as sanctimonious, and more importantly, it never forgets to make us laugh.
Call me crazy, but I think a show like this, as modest and slight as it might seem on the surface, is more important than ever in today’s political climate. Plenty of people will watch “Master of None” because it’s a pleasant and engaging comedy that’s unmarred by the occasionally sour tone of “Louie” or the “me-first” navel-gazing of “Girls”. There will be people who watch it as entertainment, and that’s great. And yet, what Ansari and Yang have done here is not easy: they’ve made a show that celebrates diversity that takes on topics big and small with an unusual lightness of touch. Like Donald Glover’s similarly mercurial “Atlanta,” “Master of None” offers viewers a singular multicultural perspective that they won’t find on almost any other show of this stripe (save for maybe “Blackish,” but I could be extrapolating there), while at the same time giving Ansari’s fanbase blissfully elongated comedic digressions, pop culture allusions that are actually funny, and winsome musings on topics that are universal regardless of race or creed.
It’s ironic that “Master of None” has been made and released with the binge-watching format in mind. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. This is a breezy show that’s as easy to watch as any network sitcom, while being incalculably more rewarding. On the other hand, each episode of “Master of None” is packed with such a sense of fullness –such an abundance of gorgeous mise-en-scene, of witty writing and understated performances, of dryly absurd humor that’s pitched at just the right tempo — that I almost felt sad knowing that I blew through the entire season in just three days. This is a show that’s easy to digest, but meant to savor, like of the great meals Dev eats throughout this new season. Here’s a toast to “Master of None”: still one of the small screen’s best and bravest shows. Season Two Grade: A.