After a four-year hiatus, Netflix’s “Master of None” is back with a third season marked by a tonal and narrative distance from its preceding seasons.
Largely centered on Denise (Lena Waithe), Season 3, which is entitled “Master of None Presents: Moments in Love,” is a sort-of spiritual sequel to the beloved “Thanksgiving” episode in Season 2 that offered a glimpse into her character’s childhood and eventual coming out. It also takes the focus off the first two seasons’ protagonist, Dev, played by series co-creator Aziz Ansari.
The shift coincides with Ansari’s own recession from the spotlight following a 2018 allegation of inappropriate behavior with a date; he recorded a stand-up special the following year for Netflix, in which he addressed the issue, but has otherwise been press-shy. (The writer-actor-producer-director was not present at Netflix’s “Master of None” virtual press junket on May 3.)
But Waithe, who co-wrote and stars in the season’s storyline, says the discussions around de-centering Dev in “Master of None” happened “long before” the controversy arose.
“I think after the Thanksgiving episode, it really gave us even more confidence to do what we would already wanted to do,” she told Variety at the junket. “But I think what needed to happen, for myself and for Aziz, after Season 2 and the success of that, and everything that happened — he needed to go away a bit, just to sort of sit with himself, to figure out who he wanted to be in the world and how he really wanted to approach his art.”
Ansari, as Waithe tells it, was living in London and watching foreign films, which “do not paint a very pretty picture” about love, when they began mapping out the new season. The result is a season revolving around Denise, who has become a successful author, that examines the contours of her relationship with Alicia (played by Naomi Ackie). Denise, like Waithe, has to contend with the consequences of her “delayed adolescence.”
“I didn’t discover my own sexuality until I was in my 20s. And so I had my first real, significant relationship [when] I was in my 30s,” said Waithe. “So, I’m starting at a place that a lot of people don’t when they get into their first relationship. I’m having to learn as I go and practice with my partner. And that’s really what you’re witnessing. But then add on to that layers of career, family, success, having to be a model queer Black person, and having to be perfect all the time, and what comes with that.”
Dev stops by for dinner, but that’s nearly all the viewer sees of him. Ansari stays behind the camera, co-writing and directing all five episodes, which often include meandering, quiet, single-shot sequences of Waithe and Ackie. The entire season was shot on film in the U.K., which stood in for upstate New York.
“He’s always really wanted to be in the director’s chair,” said Waithe. “And I think this season is a really big swing for him. It was not the easiest thing for him.”
In centering the season on a queer, Black couple, the show chooses to explores issues of fertility and IVF, including the frustrations and bureaucratic absurdities that come with it. In a story beat inspired by an anecdote from one of the show’s IVF consultants, Ackie’s Alicia learns from a fertility doctor that there is a health insurance code for an orca attack, but not for “gay and desires pregnancy.” Episode 4 in particular takes viewers through the intricacies of IVF treatment, leaving the heavy lifting on screen almost entirely to Ackie, who said she learned a great deal about the issue during filming. Shining a light on something that many people are unaware of made her feel “emboldened” as an artist.
“Because I don’t feel that far away from Alicia as a person, and the environment was so real — we had doctors around to tell us how you would put in the injections, what a woman would be feeling at particular times — and the script is so expertly written by Lena and Aziz, I couldn’t help but kind of just be taken on that journey,” said Ackie.
“It all came together really beautifully,” added Waithe. “We also had an opportunity to educate people about the lack of inclusivity when you’re in hospitals and dealing with IVF, in a way that I think most people don’t even think about. In terms of queer couples embarking on starting a family, there are things that we have to deal with that everyone [else] just doesn’t. And so it’s important that people be educated about that and learn about it, but not feel or sound like a PSA.”
Whether the show’s pacing and tone will appeal to fans of the first two seasons remains to be seen, but Waithe says that “it almost feels more like ‘Master of None’ than any other season because it’s through [Ansari’s] lens.”
“We just came to it as more well-rounded human beings, and with a little bit more empathy for these characters and just for the show in general,” she said. “And I think that’s why what you’re getting is really more of a mature ‘Master of None,’ which I think people deserve.”
“Master of None Presents: Moments in Love” premieres May 23 on Netflix.