Master of None wears its heart and its influences on its sleeve.
The show is so open and empathetic and big-hearted that you don’t mind when it transitions from a shot of lovers rolling around in the classic Italian film L’Avventura to a Master of None recreation of same. It sees the world not as a series of conflicts to be overcome, but as a series of experiences to be had, learned from, and understood through art.
It believes in people and our stupid brains, and our even stupider hearts and movies, and love and snow and family and pasta and New York City. As the world erupts with constant barrages of chaotic news, it feels more necessary than ever, this little love letter to the endless beauty of possibility.
I should say more, but I don’t want to. This might be the show of the year.
Okay I’m contractually obligated to say more. Some pretty major spoilers follow.
I really did like the first season of Master of None, but I felt a sense of diminishing returns at its formula — “Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari) thinks about something he hadn’t quite thought about that way for a while, then learns from his experience” — played out.
Don’t get me wrong. That formula was the right fit for a first season all about a young man trying to decide which path to take in his life. But I found myself savoring the moments when the show strayed from the formula and did something different, whether for small scenes or whole episodes.
It would seem that Master of None creators Ansari and Alan Yang did, too, because season two is a bold step forward for the show. The confidence it had in its first season is still there, but now it also feels like the kind of show that could do anything or go anywhere, and I’d follow. Season two opens with an episode that consciously riffs on the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves and mostly lives up to the comparison, for God’s sake.
If Dev was someone who didn’t quite know what he wanted in season one, he starts season two as a man slowly re-entering his life. He spent the time between seasons learning how to cook pasta — and getting pretty good at it — in a small town in Italy, and as season two begins, he decides to return to his life in New York, where his acting career promptly lands him a job hosting a cupcake competition reality show. (The best thing about season two is how it suggests that Ansari could have been great at a bunch of alternate careers, and if he ever decides to host a reality series, I’m there from day one.)
Master of None’s second season, in other words, is not about someone who has every option still open to them, but about someone who’s starting to realize that getting older means making compromises, and that even small compromises feel massive in the moment. The season’s central idea is that sometimes, the thing you want and the thing that’s right are miles apart, and closing the gap between them might be impossible. But sometimes it’s not, and that’s when you run toward the future.
Individual episodes express this idea in different ways. In the beautiful “Thanksgiving,” for instance, Lena Waithe’s Denise slowly, over the course of many holidays, not only comes out to her family but starts bringing her girlfriends home. But in “First Date,” Dev goes on a bunch of Tinder dates (shot and edited so the episode plays as many first dates blended into one) and slowly comes to realize that the woman he really wants to be with is engaged to another man. What then?
Dev faces a similar conundrum in the professional sphere, as his new mentor, the agreeably hammy Chef Jeff (an excellent Bobby Cannavale), is revealed to be a serial sexual harasser. And yet Dev’s entire future is tied to a TV show he’s starring in with Chef Jeff, a show he came up with and pitched before he knew who Jeff truly was. Finding a way to do the right thing and preserve his career might be impossible.
To its credit, Master of None never suggests there are easy answers to any of these dilemmas. People get hurt as a result of them, and they might not ever get over that hurt. Should Dev convince the aforementioned woman to run away with him, her fiancé will be destroyed (though — in the season’s one false note — the fiancé isn’t enough of a character to really make this feel consequential). And his career might be over thanks to being pinned to Chef Jeff anyway. That’s just how it works sometimes.
But if Master of None has known one thing from the first, it’s that the answer isn’t always as interesting as the question.
Master of None is 10 distinct episodes of television — and thank God for that
The romance between Dev and his already engaged friend, Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi, a newcomer to the show), drives season two’s “serialized plot,” such as it is, but Master of None is less interested in serialization than most Netflix series.
When it’s time for Dev and Francesca to feel out what it is they have, well, dammit, the series will devote an entire, hour-long episode to that question. Master of None’s typical commitment to small, exquisitely crafted episodes — whose running time rarely exceeds 30 minutes — means it almost feels surprising when the season two finale decides that, hey, the show had better wrap up its plots about Dev’s career and his relationship with Francesca.
Viewers of season one will know that — thanks to that season’s slow-building relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells, and I dare not spoil how season two uses this character) — Master of None can return to any plot at any moment, similar to how our lives seem to work sometimes. This gives the show license to try a bunch of stuff, always seeking the best, most entertaining idea for any given episode.
And that philosophy — how can we make this episode as amazing as possible? — is a welcome trend in this age of increasingly leaden, overwrought serialized plots. Master of None not only has time for random asides like a talk show hosted by Raven-Symoné, it downright delights in them, finding room for jokes and sight gags and offbeat moments.
Like the similarly audacious Atlanta, the series isn’t as joke-heavy as some comedies, but it’s more joke-heavy than a show like Louie (one of its obvious inspirations). Dev and his pals get themselves into ridiculous situations and can’t help but comment on them. And since they’re funny people, they say funny things.
But even the benefits of giving itself space to experiment, or of having those funny jokes, aren’t what makes Master of None’s second season as good as it is. What really makes it work is its endless faith in the idea that people will take care of each other in the end. Master of None is the kind of show that dedicates a whole episode to characters who would be extras on other shows — to doormen and bodega clerks and cab drivers — because aren’t their lives interesting too? Master of None knows that it might be terrifying to look someone else in the eye and tell them what you feel (no matter what those feelings might be), but it also believes that most people will do their best to listen anyway and respond in kind.
Is that true? I don’t know. Probably not. But Master of None hopes so. Watching it, I found myself hoping so too.
Master of None season two is streaming on Netflix.