Created by: Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang
Premieres: Friday, May 12th on Netflix
Full season watched for review
“Sometimes you meet people for a reason, sometimes you meet them for a season.”
Master of None arrived with one of the best first seasons of recent memory. It possessed a strong, distinct voice from the beginning and threaded a touching love story through looser narrative experimentation. The second season aims for similar goals, though of course the nature of experiments means that the particulars here are generally unique from the first effort. But we have another romantic interest for Dev (played by creator/writer/director Aziz Ansari), and more episodes that fly off their expected handles in often fascinating ways. Few of the episodic diversions work quite as well as they did last time (nothing here touches “Mornings”, one of the great episodes of the decade so far). Yet there are strong pieces, and enough of them call for time and attention. Unfortunately, given the nature of the Netflix platform, it’s easy to recommend skipping around to the highlights because this time they’re threaded through a disappointing bore of a romantic pair.
Things begin with promise, Dev having temporarily jettisoned his life to make pasta in a small Italian town. The first episode takes the trappings of various Italian cinematic genres, namely calls to neorealism (The Bicycle Thieves is an obvious inspiration). The show seems aware that accusations of blatant pretension might be lobbed; Dev’s bedside table features a stack of Criterion Collection films that knowingly call out the episode’s conceit. It’s a lovely, small half-hour and it doesn’t offer much in the way of consequence but introduces an adorable child and a woman who may have more stick around for longer than it initially seems. Arnold (Eric Wareheim) visits in episode two and gets a small emotional arc of his own.
Though Master of None has left New York to begin season two, it still feels of a piece with the show as a whole. This is a series obsessed with the orgasmic, aesthetic pleasures of food and that trend follows easily from America’s metropolis to Italy’s small towns. Love is often at the forefront of Dev’s mind, and he’s in such a romantic destination that the setting lays everything on a little thick, if anything. So when situations shift and the story shuffles back to New York, everything continues easily falling into place.
Everything falls a little too easily in fact. Ostensibly there are two main arcs carrying us through the season: Dev’s career and his romantic life. The latter is given plenty of time, developed but in a deeply flawed way. The former is what lacks any real structure or substance. Last season saw Dev run through the mill of Hollywood hack work, and gave everything a satirical bent. The show wasn’t about being an actor as much as it used that backdrop to elaborate on race in media and other absurdities of filmmaking. This season follows suit to some degree, especially once matters dramatically snowball near the season’s end. But for the most part everything regarding Dev’s work is so separate from the rest of his emotional life that it can be difficult to think of him as a full, richly drawn character. Instead it all comes across as loose sketches of ideas, strung together by a luckily capable performance.
The romance is a much larger component of the season, even given an extended episode at one point that drives home the lack of heat or tension present in the central pairing. Alessandra Mastronardi as Francesca has none of the easy chemistry with Ansari that Noel Wells possesses as Rachel. To some extent this is purposeful, given how uneasy their potential courtship could be. But it also speaks to how thinly drawn Francesca is. Rachel felt like a complete person, even outside of the context of her relationship with Dev. She reacted to different events in consistent and understandable ways; she had a personality and depth. Francesca often just comes across as “foreign love interest”; she has a central passion but even that just feels sort of tacked on. Perhaps that speaks to something deeper, like how little Dev truly knows her. No matter what the cause, the effect is a one-sided relationship that the show clearly expects the audience to invest in. Mastronardi isn’t bad at all in the role, but largely due to the writing she has none of the humanity that Wells provides in droves.
None of this dismisses the simple pleasures that Master of None continues to provide. As mentioned above, this is one of the best narrative series at showcasing food and how its quality can leak out into other areas of life. In some ways, this show is a series of odes: to food, to family, to friends. This can feel clunky at times. A sequel to season one’s “Parents”, “Religion” similarly focuses on the debts owed to mothers and fathers, and to a cultural perspective too-often absent from the larger conversation. At its worst this comes across as a preachy attempt to fill in culture’s gaps (though an understandable one). Yet it works beautifully when it tells you everything about its titular subject in a stunning montage that closes the episode, namely the way that religion provides a community and a purpose that some just happen to find elsewhere.
Another episode, “New York, I Love You” is a love letter to the city and to the people we may ignore on our daily outings. Far be it for me to give away the delightful particulars of the journey, but it’s an entry that recalls High Maintenance in its warm empathy and sharp, humane critiques. “Thanksgiving” is as close as this season gets to matching “Mornings”. Instead of a year condensed to a half-hour we get a couple decades in that same time. Dev and Denise (Lena Waithe) have been friends since childhood and here we get a window into their relationship through various Thanksgiving Days spent together since the 90’s. While somewhat about their bond, this episode mainly focuses Denise coming out to her mother (played, stunningly, by Angela Bassett) and the fallout from that event. It’s an episode that wisely stays away from preaching, even sending up the notion of this being an after school special. Instead it’s subtle and warm and beautiful, like the show can be at its best.
And it’s a shame that best isn’t showcased more often in the narrative of Master of None’s second season because the visuals are constantly trying to pick up the slack. The widescreen imagery carries the same affection from the countryside of Italy to a hole-in-the-wall eatery in New York. Ansari and the other directors make clear attempts to reproduce the Italian cinema at times, and the efforts alternate between “on the nose” and “graceful”, but more often lean toward the latter. But when the interior feels as hollow as it often does here, the exterior can only do so much. Master of None has jettisoned many elements from the first year, and to some extent the audacity is to be celebrated. This is no longer much of a hang-out show, and Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang are much more comfortable weaving in politics without making everything a lesson. But some of the best moments of the show continue to be just Dev and Arnold shooting the shit, which is mostly here in service of that love story that falls flat time and time again. The ingredients are largely the same but Ansari and Yang have changed up the recipe. That’s admirable and at times they pull off something beautiful. But the entrée is dry and tasteless, and you can only feast on the tasty side-dishes for so long before you feel hunger for something more substantive.