I have a confession to make. It took me a couple of attempts to get into Master Of None, the comedy series starring, written, and directed by Aziz Ansari. I love Ansari as a comedian, I loved him as Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, and I love that he turns his observational wit to discuss topics such as feminism, multiculturalism, and the idiosyncrasies of modern life. But for whatever reason, I found myself initially turned off by Master Of None’s awkward stilted nature. Ansari is a brilliant comic, but he’s not the greatest actor, and there were so many lines that seemed to fall awkwardly. Instead of a natural scene, too often I found myself seeing and hearing a performed script, and it took me out of things.
I did not, however, have that issue at all with Season 2. Perhaps that comes from rewatching Season 1 with a glass of wine in hand and then continuing onwards. But I feel that it has more to do with the assured confidence present in both the scripting and (especially) the directing.
The beginning of Season 2 finds Ansari’s character Dev in Modena, Italy, having spent the time in between seasons trying to find himself by making pasta, and delighting in Italian culture. In terms of the show, this results in an audacious black and white opening episode that seems like a direct homage to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves at times, especially when Dev has his mobile phone pinched and embarks on an amusing quest to find the perpetrator with his pasta tutor’s son.
Also in that episode, we’re introduced to the delightful Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), one of Dev’s Italian friends. They like the same sort of things, she laughs at Dev’s earnest jokes, and there are looks from Dev in her direction that hint at a little aching of the heart. You’re rooting for something to happen there almost from the very beginning. And, of course, she has a boyfriend – a chap named Pino who is perfectly lovely, but is more into tiles than culture. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the slow burn romantic plot arc that underpins this particular season.
This season, however, isn’t afraid to ignore that completely. It’s a character piece more than a plot-by-number romantic comedy series and it’s all the better for it. Dev returns to New York early on in the season, and it isn’t long before a new gig beckons, this time hosting an all-too-plausible reality TV show called ‘Clash of the Cupcakes’. But in amongst the progression of Dev’s own story, Master Of None delivers vignette episodes that almost exist as standalone snapshots, exploring the lives of others.
In ‘New York, I Love You’, the show shines a light on the lives of people who might be extras or background characters – a deaf store clerk struggling with her sex life, a doorman for a wealthy apartment block dealing with morally dubious favours for the residents, a trio of taxi drivers looking for a good night out. We’ve seen assimilation stories before, but this is an episode that feels so naturalistic as to almost be fly-on-the-wall.
Master Of None succeeds in having great heart without feeling schmaltzy. ‘Thanksgiving’ explores the holiday’s history from the perspective of Dev’s lesbian friend Denise, as she gradually comes out to her family and starts bringing girlfriends home. What starts as homophobia on her mother’s part transforms into that classic trope of parents just wanting to see their children with a ‘nice’ partner, and the latter eventually supersedes the former. It’s a simple journey, but an important one that looks at shared experience, and the idea that, ultimately, whoever we are, whomever we love, wherever we come from, happiness and the pursuit of it is really what life is all about.
The irony of this, and the difficulty of that pursuit, is perhaps illustrated best in episode four, titled ‘First Date’, which blends twelve Tinder dates into one. We see Dev take twelve different women of varying races and maturity levels on the same date, with slick direction and slicker editing remixing them all into a highlight reel that plays out onscreen in chronological order as a single date. It’s a brilliant technique that perfectly captures the potentially unfulfilling nature of these rapid-fire dates, ticking off identifiable types such as a serial daters, self-obsessives, and dark horses who appear perfectly normal on the date itself, but invite a whole bunch of questions once you get back to their place. One of the best scenes in the whole season occurs when Dev calls out one of his dates for having a racist doll in which she keeps her condoms, only for her to call him a hypocrite for realising this and still having sex with her. Dev shrugs and exits posthaste.
We end up contrasting this disillusionment at the modern dating game with Dev’s relationship with Francesca, who finds a way back into his life as the season progresses. It helps that Ansari and Mastronardi have genuine chemistry. There’s an easygoing feel to their onscreen relationship that feels incredibly genuine, and the scenes they share are so warm and joyous and downright cute at times that it’s difficult not to be carried along by the unspoken romance of it all, especially in the hour-long penultimate episode in which this all comes to a head.
But it’s not perfect. The are obstacles, not least Francesca’s boyfriend and eventual fiance. And herein lies perhaps the weakest element of the season – Pino simply isn’t around enough for us to particularly care about him. We see Francesca’s moral struggle, and she tells us that breaking up with Pino would destroy him, but the show doesn’t really earn that. The moral conundrum is created more by pre-existing moral and social considerations taken for granted, than by any real explanation of Pino and Francesca’s relationship.
But that grey and murky area is there. And Master Of None offers no easy resolution either. The same can be said of Dev’s professional life, which seems to take an amazing turn when he pitches and lands the show of his dreams. But it comes at a cost as his co-host is revealed to have several sexual misconduct allegations in his closet. Again, the aftermath is messy, just like life, as Dev comes to realise that maintaining his career and keeping this dream might be at odds with doing the right thing.
Master Of None rejects so many of the serialised norms that we’ve come to expect from our shows, but that’s its magnificent charm. It manages to be silly and offbeat and romantic and warm and puntastic and sometimes a little cringey, in the same way that people (and Dev in particular) are all of those things. It manages to pull off shifts in tone and style without seeming overly messy or anachronistic because it’s focused on people rather than plotlines. And while it might lack belly laughs, it’s not that kind of show. Instead of being able to count the times I laughed out loud, I’m content to say that I watched every second of it with a smile on my face. I absolutely adored every single minute of this season – it went further than the first, risked more, and for me, absolutely succeeded.