Super late to the party but it took a while for this one to settle in my mind. Look, Master of None season 2 is one of the most entertaining shows of the year. Aziz Ansari is, by this point, a staple of television who is easy to watch, socially conscious, and always at the forefront of the zeitgeist. That’s why Master of None works so well: it allows a space for his persona into a Louie-type mold, and that’s exactly what we need. But there are a few things holding me back from fully embracing season 2 in the way that so many others have.
I’m not aware of any allegations against the man, but Bobby Cannavale was clearly playing Anthony Bourdain here as though the No Reservations presenter is a monstrous sexual harasser. It works, but mostly due to Cannavale’s usual bombastic performance, but this plot point is under served, relegated as B-plot in the finale to prop up the motivations in the love story. It’s a waste, as it would be well within the show’s capacity to dedicate an entire episode to an exploration of the abuse of power. These were the kind of risks the show was taking in its first season, which dedicated episodes to the complexities of institutionalised racism in the entertainment industry, or to giving a voice to those who didn’t usually get to speak on television: the elderly; Indians; elderly Indians.
Season 2 is trying to do so much that it ends up only half committing to a lot of its themes. The Italian detour is lovely but the switch from black and white in the first episode to full colour in the second serves no real purpose. Is Dev idealising his time in Italy, viewing it with Criterion Collection Tinted Spectacles? In the second episode it becomes clear that Ansari really just wanted the opportunity to shoot Italy in as many different ways as possible. This playfulness is admirable and what makes the show interesting for a lot of people, but as Master of None embraces longer form storytelling, these formal incongruities stop the whole from congealing.
This focus on formal experimentation or ‘concept episodes’ struggles in a way that the first season did not. The Tinder episode, which makes the simplistic point that dating apps reduce our human experiences until we are repeating the same encounters again and again almost verbatim, plays like the sort of viral video one might encounter on their Facebook timeline. The much praised ‘New York, I Love You’ episode, which seeks to highlight stories of marginalised everyday heroes: Taxi Drivers, Concierges, the Deaf, is a clunky Humans of New York-style celebration of these characters that fails to link its stories through thematic or visual motif and so ends up feeling like a completely wasted interlude in the middle of the season. That Vengaboys needle drop is perfect, however.
By the time we get to the Thanksgiving dinner episode near the end of the run, actually one of the strongest episodes of the season in terms of writing and performance (it helps to hve Angella Bassett guest starring), the formal exercise feels so rote that the impact of its time-hopping structure is diminished. If the morality espoused by Ansari was a bit less one-note (love each other, don’t be too much of a dick, stay woke!), the extended use of the concept episode would seem less like style for its own sake.
The cinephilic pop culture references that Ansari submerges the show in suffer from much the same feeling of emptiness. Listen, I enjoy a Bicycle Thieves riff as much as the next De Sica fan, but this one felt a little undercooked. It was great to see the fabulous sequence from the 1948 classic, wherin the police get involved, recreated here and given a technological slant, but when one considers Ansari’s inability to translate the glorious tragedy of the original into his version, doesn’t Bicycle Thieves just seem like an easy target? I mean, Tim Burton’s already been there.
It would perhaps be more exciting to see Ansari riff on De Sica’s other masterpiece of the Neorealist era, Umberto D. That impossibly bleak tale of the eviction of an old man and his dog, could have been adapted by Ansari into a marvelous tragicomic set piece, right? Because the black and white opener to the series, while an appealing diversion from our expectations of the show, made little sense when the next episode was in full colour despite still being in Italy.
In episode 9, a brilliantly tense hour, Dev and his engaged Italian sweetheart Francesca attempt to navigate their feelings for each other without admitting to it. More than the Italian cinema that he consistently cites throughout season 2, this felt more like one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. But part of me wanted to see Ansari’s take on Antonioni’s 1960 classic L’Avventura, which the pair watch in the episode. How exciting it would be if Pino had gone missing and our leads had engaged in their tryst regardless. Ansari and Yang’s skill with writing specific modern relationships, let down by the sloppy Manic Pixie Dreamgirlificaiton of Francesca (a smalltown Italian with an identical personality to Dev, how progressive) could have used the concept of Anonioni’s film to push the characters into a space which would not have just been empty homage, as the premiere ended up feeling.
The thing is that all these great Italian filmmakers were using such highly stylised narratives within a specific political context. Though they sprung from Italian Neo-Realism, Ansari cites films which the directors progressed to, which were utilised that earlier technique to interrogate the alienated headspace of the complacent middle classes, something Ansari and his wealthy, satisfied friends could stand to do. Ansari, in his constant need to re-affirm his cool factor with art-house film references, almost seems to miss the point of them.
Because when Master of None’s film references work, they are transcendent. The centerpiece of the entire season is the unbroken two minute shot at the end of episode 5, in which Dev contemplates his entanglement with Francesca while Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ plays on the soundtrack. It is a moment of subdued depression straight out of Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, a late night descent into hell which works so well because its naked honesty makes the outlook of the show on the whole so much clearer. This is a show which celebrates the joy of simply being alive, of meeting people and learning from each other, of seeing what the world has to offer. On that note, Master of None often succeeds. Hopefully in the next season, Ansari and Yang’s ambition will be fully realised.