Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy about a thirty-something wannabe actor in New York, returned for season two with a set of 10 outstanding episodes that place the comedian at the top of the perch of auteur TV in 2017, a space previously occupied by Girls creator Lena Dunham.
It is a landmark season for a show that was brimming with potential following a strong, but perhaps too conservative first season, that has drawn praise from Shaun of the Dead screenwriter Edgar Wright and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.
When season one was released back in November 2015, it was met, quite rightly, with rave reviews. Ansari and Alan Yang, his co-creator and former Parks and Recreation writer, had carved out a sweet groove as writer/creators – and on the first time of asking.
Season one blended the astute observations of Aziz Ansari’s stand-up with the same warmth and straightforward narrative of Parks and Recreation. But there were signs along the way that Ansari and co wanted to do more than that.
Unlike most mainstream sitcoms, he took risks, offering social commentary along the way. Some of it landed, some of it didn’t. An episode tackling Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Asian actors was insightful, informed by Ansari’s own experiences. Another, which took quite a heavy-handed approach towards feminism, felt like it missed the mark.
Enter season two, which blows the first season out of the water, thanks to a defter touch in the handling of sensitive themes, and a masterful approach to directing that makes the show more Woody Allen than Friends.
It took a little longer than expected, and we may be thankful that Ansari took some time out to mirror his protagonist Dev and spend some time in Italy making pasta, as the influence of neorealist Italian cinema have informed some of his best decisions this time around.
Italian cinematic influences
The season premiere is an homage to Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking 1948 film Bicycle Thieves with a typical Aziz spin: instead of a stolen bicycle, it’s a phone with an all-important girls number in it.
It announces the show’s intentions for season two. Shot in sleek black and white, it finds Dev running around against the backdrop of the beautiful Italian village Modena. The dialogue is predominantly in Italian, bravely risking the loss of the casual viewer.
Further down the line, the penultimate, near-feature-length episode nine features an intro with helicopter shots of NYC and old film opening titles, a reference to Federico Fellini’s opus La Dolce Vita, which opens to a statue of Jesus being airlifted through Rome.
Series and standalone episodes
The age of streaming has blurred the lines between film and TV, and many of the episodes in season two feel like standalone vignettes that could well sit as short films. Episode 6, ‘New York, I Love You’, follows three individuals in New York: a cab driver, a doorman and a deaf girl (this segment is totally silent). The episode is only bookended by brief appearances from the core cast.
The seventh episode is a coming-of-age story about Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe), told through a series of family Thanksgivings throughout the years, from her discovering her sexuality to coming out to her hard-nosed mother and eventually bringing her partner to visit. It’s a delicately handled and moving piece of standalone work. But more on that later.
Much of season one was directly translated from bits in Ansari’s stand-up or from his book Modern Romance. It didn’t always translate well.
In the finale, Dev spends so much time reading Yelp reviews that he and Arnold (Eric Wareheim) end up missing out on the tacos because they arrive too late. It’s supposed to let us know that Dev is feeling indecisive, and it feels like as much of a waste of our time as Arnold’s.
Ansari and Yang conceived season two from scratch, and thus it becomes more difficult to see the blueprints behind each segment.
A unique take on unrequited love
The love story in season two sneaks up on you. We’re introduced to Dev’s friend Francesca and her boyfriend Pino in passing in the season opener, and though she begins to pop up more and more, it is not until episode five that we get clued into what is really going on.
The final scene is five minutes long, and more or less nothing happens. Dev sits in a cab on the way home after having spent a romantic night with Francesca. She’s engaged, but he is falling for her. Soft Cell’s Say Hello Wave Goodbye plays in its entirety. Dev looks on forlorn; he reads a text. That’s it. But it tells us more about his mindset than anything we’ve seen up to that point.
It’s a uniquely relatable piece of television, and perhaps the most striking scene from the entire series. Who hasn’t had that cab ride?
That cab scene in the 5th episode of Master Of None… ya know what I’m saying? God damn this show is good.
When the show wasn’t spoonfeeding us well-worn sentiments (albeit with good intentions) about feminism in season one, it was making obvious statements about parental relationships.
The third episode of season two has a much more intriguing approach to this, which is explored through Dev attempting to hide the fact that he eats pork from his Muslim parents (played by his real-life parents). Ansari has said that this is more about communication with our loved ones than about religious tradition.
But perhaps the best example of this is the aforementioned episode, ‘Thanksgiving’, which Ansari co-wrote with the actress that plays Denise, Lena Waithe. Dev’s presence is superfluous, and Lena takes centre stage as she attempts to mend her relationship with her mother, who is openly uncomfortable with her sexuality. It’s a delicate subject approached with subtlety and informed by Waithe’s own experiences, and, best of all, it doesn’t offer any overarching solutions to a common and sometimes insurmountable issue.
It is one of the many aspects of the delightful second season that break the shackles of the conventional sitcom and step into the realm occupied by Louis CK’s surrealist comedy Louie and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, both of which set a new standard and tone with meandering storylines, standalone episodes and an undercurrent of personal drama that slides along underneath the comedic overtones.
Take a bow Aziz, you have joined the Masters.
Master of None Season 2 is streaming on Netflix now