The Netflix comedy from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang returns for a second season with even more storytelling confidence for 10 poignant, lovely vignettes
Netflix’s wonderful “Master of None,” despite its push toward a narrative arc at the end of its Emmy-winning Season 1, does not have much more of a story for Season 2. Or to be exact, it does, but it’s a rather subtle one. The auteur-ish half-hour comedy created by Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari was consciously created in the style and mold of “Louie,” FX’s groundbreaking comedy following the nearly true adventures of its lead actor/writer/director, Louis C.K. As such, “Master of None” is a collection of magnificent, semi-autobiographic, loosely connected vignettes. To use its lead character Dev (Ansari)’s favorite pastime as a metaphor, it’s an elegantly presented, thoughtfully created, and sublimely delicious 10-course tasting menu.
But in the manner of high-end restaurants, it’s not exactly filling. “Master of None” is a feast for the senses but not always a satisfying one; nothing really ever happens. And unlike “Louie,” a show designed around interrogating the odd lull of middle age, “Master of None’s” characters are young, active, and actively searching: Dev, at its center, is looking for some combination of romantic love and career fulfillment, while trying to process the fact that he is privileged enough to prioritize the highest echelon of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the second season especially, “Master of None” is a tour of upper-class existentialism — albeit a particularly beautiful one. There already was a similarly cinematic show called “Looking,” but “Master of None” could be called that, too. Especially in this second season, as Dev travels to Italy to find himself, only to find the same problems that plagued him in New York — loneliness, missed connections, existential confusion, and the persistence all the while of great food.
The show’s use of food — and its importance to Dev — continues to be decadently central to the show. The creators share their lead’s enthusiasm for food, and have both joked that making “Master of None” is a wonderful opportunity to sample food in some of their favorite places: New York City’s numerous dives and fine dining, and in Season 2, Modena, Italy. Sometimes the food is so central that it is almost distracting: The lush food porn of something like “Chef’s Table” (called “Jeff’s Table,” tongue-in-cheek, in the show) takes up much of “Master of None’s” visual storytelling. It’s scrumptious, and a little sad: The food, no matter how indulgently enjoyed, can never quite be enough to fill the void of meaning that Dev so lightheartedly struggles with. The rich food is both an example and a stand-in for the incredible luxuries available to Dev, as an up-and-coming young creative. But it’s not enough for happiness — and in the second episode, Dev gets a new job hosting a cooking competition show that underscores the vast gulf between the aesthetic sensibilities he’s been busily refining and what shells out a good paycheck from week to week.
The story of “Master of None” is one of Dev’s continued becoming, which is both fascinating and strange in its sustained anticlimax. In the second season, both Yang and Ansari seem more confident of their talents: The direction in particular is much more engaged and considered, in what appears to be homage to the creators’ favorite films. It’s not exactly groundbreaking to nod to the French New Wave or the golden age of Italian cinema, but it’s lovely: The premiere episode, “The Thief,” is shot entirely in black-and-white on the sunlit streets of Modena. Poignantly, the choice of film both heightens the homage to a bygone era of filmmaking and exacerbates the contrast between Ansari’s dark skin tone and the largely white Italians around him.
It may sound simplistic to say that above all, “Master of None’s” successes are in the realm of its aesthetics. But by centering a sincere love for the art forms of the past around the experience of an American-born Indian immigrant, “Master of None” offers the kind of implicit commentary about universal life experiences and shared humanity that “Hamilton” made so popular on Broadway. What the show is best at is finding a surprisingly accessible language of the incontrovertibly beautiful and definitively cool — whether that is the ‘70s funk that scores the credits, the dishes that accent its meals, the cinematic grammar that it uses for its storytelling, or the self-deprecating but astonishingly intimate lens it turns toward its characters.
There’s a phrase among South Asian immigrants — “ABCD,” for American-Born Confused Desi. Like “fresh off the boat,” it’s a phrase used by the immigrant community that is both sympathetic and derogatory (and has spawned a couple of films on the topic). It’s relevant for “Master of None,” because Dev approaches the world with such continued wide-eyed wonder — examining, this season, love and culture and religion and community with the same blank-slate curiosity. Ansari and Yang are both first-generation immigrants, and much of that is packaged into the show’s storytelling — with so much accuracy that, for this ABCD, it’s sometimes painful. But “Master of None” is keen to integrate this niche experience with the wider world, which is not hard in this nation of immigrants. It makes for a particularly moving second installment of Dev’s wanderings through the world, asking always the immigrant’s sad and beautiful and perpetual question: “Who am I going to decide to be?”