I worried that this would influence my viewing of season two, which debuted in May. It picks up in Italy, in Italian, and in black and white. The first episode, “The Bike Thief,” is an ode to the 1949 film Bicycle Thieves, except that Dev has only lost his cell phone and, in it, the number of a girl he likes. The episode's storyline, the dramatic acting, the cinematography, the subtitles—all these elements combined to create a conspicuous air of desperation. The show wanted to seem charming, arty, deep; its need for approval was so pronounced it bordered on patronizing. The critics were right, I resolved: it was trying too hard to be likable, which resulted in something bland, unobjectionable, and boring.
Still, my affection for season one encouraged me to try episode two. This episode is another nod to a classic Italian film, 1961’s La Notte. Dev’s friend Arnold (played by Eric Wareheim) visits him in Italy and the two attend a wedding for Arnold’s ex-girlfriend, who he hasn’t seen in years. Arnold—despite dating other people and agreeing he is not ready to settle down—decides, in fact, he is not over his ex, and also decides he should say so at her wedding. It is not a particularly clever or unique plot, but that’s forgivable. What’s not forgivable is the insistence that Arnold remain likeable by the end of the episode: he retreats from the party, has a heart-to-heart with Dev, and succumbing to reason, (by which I mean: getting a message from a cute girl on a dating site that distracts him sufficiently from his recent agenda), goes back to the wedding. Fine. But then he takes over the father-of-the-bride’s wedding toast to confess his ulterior motives in attending the wedding, offers some hollow words on love and relationships, and gives his blessing—as if it matters!—to the bride and groom. It was so cloying I was close to screaming; at the moment, I was even closer to just quitting the series altogether.
But I stuck it out. I cannot explain why. I put it on as background entertainment while doing dishes one Thursday evening, and noticed, slowly, the episodes seemed to suck less. Eventually, I put down a dirty mug, dried my hands, and sat down on the couch.
Master of None at times still feels desperate for approval—its singular fault—which is a shame, because such a conspicuous desperation can distract from the seriously innovative and thoughtful ways this sitcom approaches television.
For example: Episode 3, “Religion,” is about Dev’s relationship to his devout Muslim extended family and, eventually, his relationship to Islam itself. It explores religious belief through the concrete discipline of avoiding pork products. Episode 6, “New York, I Love You,” follows the storyline of intersecting New Yorkers: a doorman, a deaf woman, and a Burundian cab driver. This episode didn’t work hard to be arty; it was genuinely stunning and unselfconscious. Episode 8, “Thanksgiving,” is the decades-long coming-out story of Dev’s best friend Denise (played by Lena Waithe). This episode, too, was masterful. Angela Bassett plays Denise’s single, devoutly Christian mother. It manages to tell a meta-narrative about strong women and social changes while maintaining a focus on the particular details of one woman’s coming-out experience.
There is, of course, another love story in this season—and one more complicated than that of the first season. Dev falls for Francesca (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), a charming and likeable woman with whom he develops a deep and believable bond. The relationship grows in a way that doesn’t smack of Hollywood screenwriting. But Francesca is engaged, and the love is unrequited.
By the end of Master of None’s second season, I was smitten anew by the series I’d all but given up on. Thank goodness I’d stuck it out: the very thing I suspected it could or would not do—leave us with messy, unresolved, unredeemed characters and relationships—is precisely how the season ends.