Master of None and the Universality of the Specific Experience
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s groundbreaking Netflix Original Series Master of None made its triumphant return this past weekend. The first season premiered back in November 2015, offering a sweet, thoughtful romantic-comedy and authentic story about the minority experience. The second season takes the premise even further, with a more audacious visual palette and more convention-defying attributes. The series follows struggling actor Dev Shah (Ansari) as he navigates his career and tries to make a meaningful connection. While on paper the show sounds like every Sundance rom-com, Ansari and Yang provide little details and big truths about life through the specificity of their vision.
The season premiere, “The Thief,” is already one of the most celebrated episodes of the series and for good reason. Shot in black and white, the episode is an extended homage to Italian neo-realism. Written by Ansari and Yang, the episode follows Dev in Modena, Italy working as an apprentice in a pasta shop. Dev has adapted well to the Italian life, learning the language and making a small little circle of friends for himself. For his birthday he books a table for one at an exclusive restaurant, then offers a seat to Sara (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a British woman who made a reservation for the wrong day. The two strangers have a pleasant day and exchange numbers. But a petty thief steals Dev’s phone and he’s unable to reach her.
Much like the Italian film movement that inspired it, “The Thief” finds meaning in everyday occurrences. Whether it’s Sara and Dev’s impromptu date or a chance meeting with a famous football star, these mundane experiences have profound effects on the characters. Dev feels a romantic and intimate connection to Sara, something he hadn’t felt since his breakup with season one girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells). Dev’s attempts to find the phone isn’t just a millennial too attached to his device but a lonely man trying to save a connection. “The Thief” doesn’t lose Ansari and Yang’s voice in the homage. The episode is funny, with small flourishes of character detail. Ansari directs the episode with an elegance that is invisible. There are some beautiful shots to the episode, such as Dev and his young friend Mario (Nicolo Ambrosio) sitting on a doorstep with large rectangles behind them suggesting iPhones. “The Thief” is a break from the show’s usual visual palette, and one that signifies a new direction for the series.
There are a number of standout episodes in the 10-episode season. Ansari and Yang really understand the value of a standalone episode, so the episodes all feel separate from each other both thematically and stylistically. A major highlight is “First Date,” a montage episode of Dev going on a large number of first dates that range from bizarre to funny, to sweet to depressing. The editing of the episode by Jennifer Lilly suggests how all first dates are the same, even if what actually happens on them is different. Dev does have some great moments in the episode, but Ansari steps aside to let his leading ladies take the spotlight. It’s a beautiful episode that showcases the highs and lows of online dating.
Much like in the first season, cultural divide between children and parents is a big theme. This season offers two episodes, “Religion” and “Thanksgiving” that depict how adult children slowly break away from what their parents want and how the parents have to reconcile with that. “Religion” brings back Dev’s parents as they face the idea that Dev isn’t as religious as they want him to be. “Thanksgiving” gives Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) a spotlight as it traces her coming into her own as a gay Black woman. The episode is aided by stellar work from Angela Bassett and Kym Whitley as Denise’s mother Catherine and aunt Joyce respectively.
Master of None takes the generic indie comedy and gives it life because it focuses on unseen characters and marginalized voices. “New York, I Love You” follows three characters who would be mere props in a white person story and gives them the “Woody Allen treatment.” They can just walk around, talk, and suffer disappointments and enjoy victories. This episode is really special, because it almost completely eschews any main character and follows three strangers around during their day. The episode acknowledges that these people are human beings with their own full lives and complex emotions.
Ansari and Yang go full Woody Allen with the central romance where Dev falls in love with Francesca (Alessandra Mostanardi), the beautiful but attached woman he met in Italy. Francesca is hardly more than a fantasy (though perhaps intentionally so) even though her scenes with Dev are palpably romantic and full of quiet longing. I found the romance to be one of the least compelling parts of the show (second only to the subplot about Dev’s friendship with a celebrity chef played by the terrific Bobby Cannavale). Even though the Francesca storyline is a little clichéd, the series does do some interesting things regarding race. There’s an interesting scene where she uses the phrase “curry people” (a “delete her phone number” offense in my book) and Ansari plays it dead serious. Dev’s ethnicity informs his life, even though he isn’t defined by it. So even when Master of None works in tired tropes, the specificity of the voice underscores them with authenticity.
And that to me is why Master of None is such a success. Modern romance, to take the title from Aziz Ansari’s book, isn’t much different in this go-around as it is in any dramedy. But by being written, directed, produced, and performed by people of color the clichés come alive. Master of None takes many of its cues from Woody Allen, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio de Sica, among others—but through the lens of minority experience. That’s what makes Master of None such a vital, important show.