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Master of None season 3 is an artfully filmed disappointment

Moments in Love is a radically progressive departure for the series — held back by its too-rigid filmmaking.

Denise and Alicia do laundry and have a dance party.
Denise and Alicia dance while doing laundry in the third season premiere of Master of None.
Courtesy of Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Master of None has always been about co-creator and lead actor Aziz Ansari’s enthusiasms. From his love of great food to his love of New York, the show lets him articulate his passions beautifully, through his writing, direction, and performance.

The show also wound up being a way for Ansari to demonstrate his enjoyment of classic arthouse cinema. He directed more and more episodes across its first two seasons, incorporating more classicist techniques from famed European films of the mid-20th century, and season two actually featured a shot of the Criterion editions of classic films early in its run. (Among those films was Vittorio de Sica’s famed Italian masterpiece Bicycle Thieves — and, fittingly, Master of None’s season two premiere was about Ansari’s character, Dev, having his phone stolen.)

At first blush, the show’s third season, its first new season in just over four years, would seem to go against this tendency of its (now former) star. Ansari barely appears in season three, and he’s one of just two men with roles of any prominence. The story focuses, instead, on the marriage between Denise (Lena Waithe), a supporting character in the first two seasons, and new character Alicia (Naomi Ackie). Over the course of the season’s five episodes (which range from 20 minutes to 55 minutes long), the two navigate relationship strife, much of which stems from attempts to have a baby, first via artificial insemination and later via IVF.

I want to say here that this season is very intentionally not a comedy. I think I laughed once. Master of None was never a laugh-a-second show, but it did have jokes throughout its first two seasons. These five episodes peer into some very difficult moments in two women’s lives; as such, even when the tone is lighter, there are almost no intentional jokes. For me, that was fine. Your mileage may vary.

In theory, as a queer woman who’s exploring options to have a baby with her wife, when both of us are well past our years of peak fertility, I should be an easy mark for this narrative. But I felt constantly distanced from Master of None’s third season — which is technically called Master of None Presents Moments in Love, but good luck getting people to call it anything other than “season three” — and the reasons for that distancing largely boil down to Ansari’s direction.

Master of None’s visual aesthetic is too often at odds with the story it’s telling

Alicia lays on a tree and looks up at the sky.
Alicia takes a moment to herself.
Courtesy of Netflix

Ansari directed all five episodes, all of which he also co-wrote with Waithe. His direction of the season consists of static wide shots, only cutting in for an extreme, intimate close-up at a key emotional moment. The frames are perfectly composed, each and every element within them placed with exactitude. Ansari holds these shots for long periods of time, letting his camera stay fixed while his actors move into and out of the frame, rather than, say, following Denise when she goes into the kitchen from the dining room. We’ll hear her voice from off-camera instead.

(Here is where I will note that Ansari was accused in early 2018 of being too sexually forward on a date. Ansari said he thought what happened on the date was consensual; the woman accusing him did not. As Me Too-spurred allegations against famous men went, the one against Ansari was comparatively mild, but it’s easy to wonder if the allegations spurred him to work more behind the scenes on Master of None’s third season. Yet back when season two launched in spring 2017, Ansari was already saying that he thought season three would take years to arrive, so a long gap between seasons was always planned. Season three’s stripped-down story was further affected from being produced during the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Because Ansari shoots Moments in Love in a narrower, slightly boxier aspect ratio than we’re used to seeing on modern television — a 4:3 aspect ratio, which was dominant for most of the medium’s history, up until widescreen TVs became more prevalent in the 2000s — scenes often look a little crowded, especially when there are more than two people in them (and, honestly, sometimes when there are only two people in them).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and at times, Moments in Love benefits from it. But the overall effect holds viewers at arm’s length throughout the season’s 4.5-hour running time, and that works to Master of None’s detriment.

It took me a bit to figure out what Ansari’s direction was nodding toward most often, but after rewatching several key sequences, I realized the director is paying homage to Scenes From a Marriage, a 1973 TV miniseries from the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. (Scenes From a Marriage was re-edited into a shorter feature film version for its initial release in the US in 1974; both versions are now available via Criterion.) Moments in Love has a similar aspect ratio as Scenes From a Marriage, and both projects rely on static shots held for long lengths of time, as the actors move within those shots.

Bergman is not the only great director to have used a “fly on the wall” approach to telling a realistic story, but Ansari seems to have Scenes From a Marriage in mind when filming, say, Denise and Alicia in bed together. Bergman’s detachment from his central married couple in that film reflected both their distance from each other (because the camera was so far away) and how trapped they felt (because of the slightly more confining shape of the frame). But as you’ll see in this scene, Bergman would cut in for close-ups on his actors when they were feeling particularly passionate. Ansari doesn’t do this.

On the one hand, Moments in Love’s overall approach, beyond its visuals, is a radical one, and it shows the hand of Waithe both at the writing and at the performance stage. Taking the work of Bergman — one of the greatest directors of the Western canon, but whose work was only ever subtextually queer and was always about people of European descent — and transforming his ideas so that they now center a Black queer couple is transgressive on at least some level. What does a story about the ups and downs of a marriage mean when you make it about two Black women? What stays the same, and what changes, if anything?

Automatically, the process of having a baby becomes more fraught, and some of the best sequences of Moments in Love are about the difficulties of pursuing fertility treatments as a lesbian couple. In a perhaps too-didactic scene, a doctor informs Alicia that there just isn’t an insurance code for a lesbian couple (or a single woman) to have a child via IVF in the same way there is for a straight couple. It’s the kind of quietly devastating moment that Ansari’s direction was designed to capture perfectly, and it feels clearly informed by Waithe, a lesbian, telling this particular story.

The season’s fourth episode — which is all about the ups and downs of fertility care — is its best single installment, and it honestly might stand on its own for the curious. When the camera enters the operating room for embryo transplants or egg harvesting, the cool, clinically detached approach that Ansari favors feels as if it dissociates from the characters entirely, to the scene’s benefit. In order to become pregnant this way, a certain distance from the body must occur.

But the season struck me as too artistically conservative in many places. In particular, Moments in Love requires you to be all in on Denise and Alicia’s marriage early on for the later strife they face throughout the fertility treatment process to land. But pulling the camera back from them as a default and placing them within a narrow, boxy frame creates the subconscious sense that they’re already trapped in their relationship. We’re longing for them to escape it long before we should be.

Again, this “fly on the wall” style can be effective. The way the series uses the house Denise and Alicia share as a symbol of the state of their relationship at any given time is wonderfully effective (pay attention to scenes where the two do laundry), and the series’ only significant close-up is tremendous when it finally arrives. It packs a wallop.

Maybe we are supposed to think Denise and Alicia are trapped from frame one. Yet if that’s the case, I’m not sure this series knows what they’re trapped by.

Master of None tries to escape the aesthetics of affluence in season three, but it doesn’t go far enough

Alicia and Denise look out at a green, green field, leaning on the fence.
If nothing else, the house in this season has really cool grounds to wander around on.
Courtesy of Netflix

Broadly speaking, Master of None belongs to a TV comedy subgenre we might call the “short film sitcom.” The core idea of this type of series means that every episode is its own short film, often centered on the perspective of a singular auteur, who often directs, writes, and stars in the series. Examples would include FX’s Louie and Atlanta and HBO’s Girls and Insecure, but there are many more than just those few. (Remember TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show?)

Central to many of these series is an idea that the characters don’t particularly have to worry about money. Girls may have opened with a scene where Hannah’s parents told her she could no longer rely on them to fund her adventures, but she had parents who funded her adventures. Sam Fox on FX’s Better Things stresses about money sometimes, but she also owns a house in Los Angeles and works intermittently as an actor. Money is a fleeting concern in these shows, not a constant one.

Not every show in this format can be so blasé about economic matters. Atlanta is one of the best TV series ever made about the ways that people in poverty organize their lives to stretch every last dollar they have (and about the horrible structures that keep impoverished people impoverished). But typically, this style of storytelling carries within it an assumption of wealth and power and privilege.

Yet the fact remains: Not having to constantly worry about money is a privilege, and the short-film sitcom, whose stylistic roots lie in highbrow film comedies that center on characters who spend most of their time pursuing pure aesthetic pleasures and pondering the deeper mysteries of the universe, is too often rooted in that privilege. There is nothing wrong with telling a story focused on these issues. Many great films and TV shows tackle characters who are economically comfortable.

Yet Moments in Love seems, fitfully, to want to look at this question of economic privilege. An assumption of economic comfort certainly animated the first two seasons of Master of None. The characters’ affluence, particularly in season two, was mostly presented matter of factly. Though the show was able to step outside the affluent bubble of its central character, its portrayal of New York could never quite leave the perspective of the people paying service-industry employees; it failed to explore the perspective of the service-industry employees themselves, even when it explicitly tried. (To its credit, Master of None tries much harder to shift its economic perspective than other comparable shows, as Andrew Karpan at Film School Rejects points out.)

In its early going, Moments in Love has the same vague “lifestyles section of the New York Times” visual aesthetic of Master of None’s other two seasons. The house Denise and Alicia share is almost aggressively cozy, and it feels isolated from the rest of the world, like the couple lives inside of Taylor Swift’s photoshoot for her cottagecore album folklore. In later episodes, the series complicates its own affluent coziness, and we do learn that some characters from the first two seasons are having economic troubles. Master of None is interested in the ways that its characters’ blinkered perspectives shift with their economic rise and fall, and its examinations of how expensive it is to pursue IVF treatments help to ground this consideration.

But no matter how much Master of None explores questions about the way its characters’ access to wealth (or their lack of access) paints their view of the world, it is unwilling to push too far. The season finale still features a lengthy vacation that suggests the characters remain fairly well off when all is said and done.

If we’re meant, on some level, to see Denise and Alicia as imprisoned by their circumstances in those early episodes but also to see them as being deeply in love (at least for a little while), then the obvious question is what is holding them in place. The series feints toward the idea that it’s financial and social success — that Denise and Alicia are so unable to imagine a life outside of the one we see early in the season that they make choices out of a fear of losing it, but that doesn’t track with much of what actually happens in the season.

Instead, what imprisons Denise and Alicia is a question that Master of None doesn’t really bother to consider: Why?

Many of us who are queer in America in 2021 are actively considering all of the ways in which the cisheteronormative ideals that most pop culture indulges in blind us to the ways in which those systems are not necessarily the way things have to be.

Master of None builds Moments in Love atop the assumption that the happiest life for Denise and Alicia is one of monogamous bliss in a beautiful cabin in the woods, and that having a baby might very well add to that bliss (though on that question, at least, Denise and Alicia don’t immediately agree). But what if it isn’t? What if there are other ways to organize a life, to raise a child, to consider oneself successful? Moments in Love flirts with those questions, but it never really engages with them, because it ultimately can’t think of another way to see the world. The tight frames of this season don’t imprison the characters. They imprison the show itself.

Master of None Presents Moments in Love (phew) debuts Sunday, May 23 on Netflix. It’s five episodes long and around 3.5 hours in running time.

Correction: In the season two premiere of Master of None, Dev has his phone stolen, not his bicycle. The article has been updated.

For more on Master of None season three, listen to Peter Kafka’s conversation with co-creator Alan Yang on the Recode Media podcast.