When Master of None first hit our screens in 2015, it was among dozens of other shows in which every comedian and their aunt were desperately striving for their own auteur driven sitcom in the vein of the critically hailed “Louie” and “Curb your Enthusiasm”. So what right did Aziz Ansari -previously known as supporting player and all round trendsetter/entrepreneur Tom Haverford in NBC’s Parks and Recreation- have to think that his and co-creator Alan Yang’s Master of None wouldn’t find itself buried amongst the growing pile of quickly cancelled TV shows?
In this so called golden age of television, where it seems like there are twenty to thirty new series’ premiering each week, it can all feel rather intimidating to try and give each show a chance. Well, Master of None taught me one very important lesson that year, one I have been adopting faithfully ever since: always give a show at least two episodes of your time before deciding whether it’s for you or not.
I tuned into the first season as a result of my appreciation of Aziz Ansari (his comedic talents on Parks and Recreation and his stand up are not to be missed). However, I felt myself overcome with a sense of disappointment from the first forty-five minutes of the show not containing the constant laugh per minute count or over the top cartoonish wackiness I had come to expect from Ansari. So I didn’t proceed, yet two weeks later I returned with a fresh perspective and discovered something magical. I found Ansari and Yang had little care for giving the audience or fans what they expected or perhaps even what they wanted. Instead, they created a show that was far bolder than anyone could imagine.
To do it a slight disservice and put it plainly, Master of None follows thirty something Indian-American actor Dev Shah (Ansari), a struggling New York based actor who must deal with the pitfalls of romance, family, work and the very society he lives in. This is simply the pretty bow that ties the show together but never once feels restrained by its premise, each episode offering new surprises and enjoyment that often isn’t afraid to leave its protagonist in the background to explore new themes and characters. As a result, the show’s first series became a hit with audiences and critics alike, noted for its uncanny ability to use humor and a warm, smiley veneer to hide a powerful and razor sharp commentary on our society and culture.
The first season ended with Dev reacting to the painful end of his up and down relationship with long-term girlfriend, Rachel, by boarding a plane and moving to Italy to make pasta. Three months later and that’s where we find the second series starting off, in the gorgeous streets of Modena, Italy.
Kicking off with a tasteful pastiche to The Bicycle Thieves and classic neorealist Italian cinema of the 40s and 50s, Dev is in heaven, speaking Italian, making fresh pasta, meeting new people and soaking up the culture of this extraordinary town. Yet it’s quickly apparent that despite all this, he isn’t happy. Nothing, not all the food and wine in Italy and New York can fill the empty void in his heart, seemingly tortured by the absence of love and romance in his life. He’s confused and tormented by his quest to meet “the one”, saddened that they may be behind him and the tragic knowledge that “the one” may not even exist.
Straight off the bat, the new series holds no punches and begins exposing us to a tragic, brutal and harsh reality that many can not only relate to but, like Dev himself, want to ignore. The idea that no matter where we are in our careers, how much money and security we have, what exotic country we are in or how we spend our Friday evenings, it’s the people in our lives and the relationships that are formed and broken that have the great impact on us.
After the show introduces Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), Dev’s Italian friend who becomes the season’s main narrative arc and through-line, you will quickly find yourself becoming enamored with her. However, she’s quite different from Dev’s ex-girlfriend; Rachel was the girl next-door, quirky and a bit of a geek. She and Dev seemed ostensibly right for each other, but their similarities and mutual fears eventually drove them apart, whereas Francesca, from the outset, represents a more romanticised, dreamlike version of what Dev imagines his “one” to be – an elegant beauty and charm as though she’s been ripped straight out of the classic European movies Dev loves so much. Arguably punching above his weight but the show goes beyond that and again defies expectations by exploring the real character and person behind that fantasy. The show isn’t afraid to take its time in developing a believable bond and chemistry between the two. Sparks fly on-screen when they’re together, they talk, they laugh, they love the same weird things and they feel relaxed in each other’s company. They like each other but just like everything good in Dev’s life, there’s a catch.
She’s got a boyfriend and soon to be fiancé.
The series ultimately ventures into slightly darker and more tragic territory, as Dev’s forbidden and growing love for her only forces him to become miserable, frustrated and empty as the prospect that nothing can ever happen becomes more of a reality. Yet the series never once abandons its positive and warm heart. While the Dev and Francesca story dynamic offers a strong, complex and captivating plotline throughout the show’s ten episodes, many of the series’ chapters are spent focusing on minor side characters or complete strangers in general. Two of the show’s strongest episodes -and possibly the strongest episodes of television we are likely to see all year- place Dev as a passing character to proceedings.
The “Thanksgiving” episode (written by Lena Waithe) explores, over the course of multiple decades, the character of Denise (Dev’s childhood friend) and her struggle with coming out to her family. Elsewhere, “New York, I Love You” takes this one step further by branching out and examining the lives of a random assortment of New York’s diverse and multicultural citizens, briefly glimpsing into the ups and downs of their day.
The show’s ability to surprise, charm and move the audience in fresh news ways is constantly riveting and spellbinding. It is frequently unafraid to turn its back on well trodden tropes and clichés. For instance, the sudden reappearance of Rachel toward the latter half of the season is bound to shock people and the season’s climax may not offer the clean resolution people want, but it does what all great endings do, get people talking.
However, as well as the daring and inventive writing, the audacity of the directing and visual language of season two was a marvel to behold ,particularly for a half hour comedy series. The use of gorgeous lighting, lingering static long takes, carefully crafted camera movements or the complex and painstakingly considered intercutting between several completely disconnected storylines continued to amaze.
To put into perspective how much this show has grown and improved in its sophomore outing, the “Mornings” episode from season one was one of the strongest episodes of television I have ever seen. Well, season two has about three or four of those on offer. Season two took this show to wonderful new heights and became more mature and sophisticated than anyone could have hoped. Its wit and charisma is matched only by its brutal relevance and relatability because, despite how silly or ridiculous the show gets, it always reminds you that it too can’t escape the perils of reality and the pitfalls of everyday life.
Master of None is modestly becoming an expert in meticulously and elegantly exploring the different facets and intimate moments of our everyday existence into exquisitely well-crafted, thirty-minute episodes of boldly unique television. It’s a show that examines love, life, food, art, culture, age, race, religion, sexism, parental and sexual relationships, all under the guise of a warm and captivating comedy show.