Master of None Season 2 does a thing I dislike in shows about aspiring show-business types, where the protagonist over the course of the season seems to have achieved some fantastic career success (usually – and in this case – toplining a TV show) with it either falling out from underneath him in the season finale (think Louis Season 3), or being artistically underwhelming (Extras Season 2). 30 Rock did an arc like this (“Dealbreakers”), Crashing did it in its first season with its Rachael Ray arc, and shows like Love, BoJack Horseman, and Episodes seem actually to be fully structured around stories like these. It’s a tired plot and anyone paying the least bit of attention can see the story beats coming a mile away.
Still and all, Master of None’s sophomore season is a real treat. There are three major throughlines of the season: Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) career in TV, first hosting a cupcake competition show and then partnering up with a big-time celebrity chef played by Bobby Cannavale to co-host a food/travel show; Dev’s relationship with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi); and Aziz Ansari’s decision to devote full episodes of his show to experimental short form filmmaking.
As far as Dev’s professional life goes, the Clash of the Cupcakes gig gag (gig gag… I like that) gets real tired real fast. It’s all a joke about how meaningless reality food competitions are – or maybe just the particularly dumb ones – and feels like a retread of things we’ve all already seen on TV before. Once Cannavale shows up, however, things kick into a higher gear. Cannavale is, as always, impossible to take your eyes off of and fills every scene he’s in with a combination of tension and exuberance. You’re always waiting for the shoe to drop and for his celebrity character to turn out to be an asshole, but that never happens. Instead, the show chooses a much more topical and unconventional way to tie that arc up. The way it deals with the fallout is as remarkable as it was disappointing to see a truly great career opportunity slip through poor Dev’s fingers once again.
Similarly, Dev’s love life is not the most original romance ever portrayed on screen, yet the combined charm of Ansari and Mastronardi overcome any such obstacles and makes for an incredibly pleasant viewing experience.
What – deservedly – gets Master of None most of its buzz, however, are the show’s brilliant concept episodes. Three stand out this season: one depicts multiple Thanksgivings over the course of Dev’s life, as he joins his friend Denise’s (Lena Waithe) family every year for the Thanksgiving meal. The focus of this episode is Denise’s process of coming out to her family, and it’s genuinely emotionally impactful. Another episode covers a series of Dev’s first dates off of a Tinderesque dating app. He takes each of them to the same three locations: first a restaurant, then a bar, then a rooftop overlooking the city. It brings to mind Ansari’s recent standup material, which focuses heavily on the impact of technology on our lives, particularly as it concerns dating and relationships. It’s a topic that’s clearly close to Ansari’s heart, and the episode reflects that in its precision and humanity. It doesn’t hurt that it was directed craftily by, who – delightfully – plays Dev’s friend Arnold on the show, and who ostensibly has a grasp on Ansari’s vision and sensibilities.
The third concept episode I want to address is called New York, I Love You, which contains a classic ten-minute sequence the likes of which I haven’t seen before. The episode does not feature any of our regular or recurring characters, instead giving us three short episodes in the lives of three distinctly different New Yorkers: a doorman, a deaf cashier, and a cab driver. Each “episode” is excellent in its own way, but the deaf girl’s sequence is something very special. As soon as her portion of the episode begins, all sound cuts out – no ambient noise, no nothing – and we get to experience a few moments of her life almost as she does. In silence. It’s seriously jarring and had me checking my speakers for a minute or two before realizing what the show was doing and spontaneously applauding. It’s daring and experimental, and I absolutely loved it.
While Master of None doesn’t quite achieve a coherent greatness, it does something almost as impressive, which is to establish a level of distinction and assurance rarely seen in TV comedies. Aziz Ansari cares demonstrably about the cinematic quality of his show, paying more attention to its filmic aesthetics than is normally paid to half-hour comedies, and his careful cinematic voice distinguishes Master of None as a singular and important piece of auteurist television.