Summer Streaming Staff Picks: ‘Master of None’

Thoughtful but Eager to Please
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Aziz Ansari in ‘Master of None’ / Netflix
Aziz Ansari in ‘Master of None’ / Netflix

When Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy Master of None debuted in 2015, I was immediately smitten. This wasn’t surprising: I loved Ansari in his seven seasons as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, a series I’ve watched several times over, and have enjoyed his stand-up work.

Ansari plays Dev, an actor trying to make it in New York. The first season tackles everything from a pregnancy scare that prompts Dev to think about life as a parent, to the dearth of Indian and Asian representation on TV, to the sacrifices of immigrant parents. Of course, there’s also on-again-off-again love story which provides the backdrop for nearly every episode. Dev and his girlfriend Rachel (played by Noelle Wells) have a couple of chance meetings, finally start dating, move in together, have sex and have fights, and break up by the end of the season. Neither of them possesses utter certainty about the relationship (which, strangely, they take as a reason to break up). She decides to move to Tokyo and in the last scene, we see Dev on a flight—maybe to win back Rachel?—but quickly learn he’s headed to Italy to learn to make pasta.

Between seasons one and two I heard criticisms that the show was excessively politically correct, too painstaking in its careful treatment of any potentially controversial subject. That the gang of friends (an Asian man, a black lesbian woman, a large oafish white man, and Dev, an Indian-American) was representation-teetering-on-tokenism. That the characters were too redeemable, too communicative and clear, too sensitive. That the show was just trying too hard.

A conspicuous desperation at times distracts from the innovative approaches of this show

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.

Ellen B. Koneck is the Community & Events Manager at Commonweal and teaches in the Catholic Studies department at Sacred Heart University. You can follow her on Twitter.

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