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‘Master Of None’ is back and it’s better than ever

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-05-2017 Raja Sen

There’s nothing wrong with being uneven.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is my big takeaway from Master Of None—the insightful and observant Netflix series by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang—and it is on display throughout the show’s second season, out on 12 May. This show rallies forcefully against homogeneity on every level, from the leading man’s motley string of love interests, to the show’s varied cinematic styles and textures, to running time—episodes range from 20-something minutes to 50-something minutes—right to the inconsistent gnocchi Ansari’s character, Dev, makes in Italy.

This is a show celebrating not merely diversity but difference, and while “it takes all sorts” might not be a particularly new perspective—and not at all unexplored within the show’s primary setting of New York City—the way Master Of None mixes genial comedy with anthropological and societal investigation gives it both edge and warmth. In the end when the lights are dimmed, aren’t we all living in the same world, watching the same Nicolas Cage movie, afraid to overhear a spoiler?

At the end of the first season, Dev fled heartbreak by dashing impetuously off to Italy, an occasional actor on the run to find himself, and the new season opens in beautiful black and white. Dev cycles around Modena, the intimate town where Ferrari happens to be headquartered, and at home he has a stack of Fellini DVDs on his nightstand. He learns to make pasta and speaks crumbly but joyful Italian, the brown of his skin inevitably making him stand out against the natives, making the show feel familiar through its neorealist approach and unfamiliar by way of, well, melanin. Ansari does a Jhumpa Lahiri better than Lahiri, as The Wife commented, referencing Lahiri’s last book, written in Italian. Things happen—things, as they used to be in the films saluted, that are silly and lovely and bittersweet—and just when I started digging the beats of this new season and its old influences, Dev and the show return to New York, amid taxicabs and scarfs shaped like pizza and apps that involve swiping right, a concept that appalls Dev’s new Italian ladyfriend.

Ah, yes. The Woman. Francesca, played by Alessandra Mastronardi, is as exquisite as her name—a name worth saying out loud a few times over—a vivacious heroine who wouldn’t look out of place on Guido’s arm in Fellini’s 8½. She is the implausibly lovely leading lady, and Dev, who uses the same opening line on all the women he matches with online, is believably out of his depth. Theirs is a cinematic romance—a finely written, complicated, melancholy and tender story underscored by superbly picked Italian music—but the truly gorgeous thing about Master Of None is that the show doesn’t belong to them.

Instead, the show elegantly expresses how everybody has a story, demonstrated best through an evocative episode titled “New York, I Love You”, directed wonderfully by Yang, that pushes the principal characters nearly out of the frame. Sure, most of the season seats us on Dev’s shoulder watching his story unfold because it’s his show, but everyone on the periphery, everyone—those close to him or even those just passing through—has their own narrative, their own lead parts. Nobody’s an extra, and their stories are never what you expect. A deaf couple argue passionately and quietly in a store only to have a furious woman reprimand them because her kids know sign language and, having overheard this heated fight, are now running around the shop silently yelling “vagina” with their hands.

The show falls back on what worked the first time around: a season one episode called “Mornings” shows the entire arc of a romantic relationship exclusively through the way the couple started their day, while a brilliant season two episode called “Thanksgiving” shows us Dev’s friend Denise (played by Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the episode), a black girl struggling with her sexuality and coming out, taking us from her childhood to a few months ahead of the present day, shown to us only via Thanksgiving meals. Dev, as Denise’s best friend and another minority, is referred to as extended family by her grandmother.

While on meals and family, Ansari—having bafflingly and unforgivably named his character Dev Shah, a name that is neither South Indian nor Muslim—may have skirted conversation about Islam in the first season, but absolutely goes at it this time, with an episode called “Religion” featuring the temptations offered by crispy bacon, and Dev skipping prayers in order to have an extravagant pork feast. His parents—played by Ansari’s real life parents, mother Fatima and father Shoukath, a breakout performer from last season—surprise him both with their disappointment and their flexibility, and it makes a fine, incredibly timely companion piece to last year’s award-winning “Parents” —an episode I wrote a column about.

The subjects in Master Of None are manifold, more ambitiously so than with the excellent first season, going from first dates to sexual harassment to the deciphering of emojis. We see the way an old surgeon amuses himself, the way an elderly man finds love with two women instead of one, and we see the way the young cope with pain and with privilege. It may be a show reverentially built on the storytelling traditions of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and even Louis C.K., but there is room for Ansari and Yang to add tone (and skintone) to the conversation. This is, above all, a truly humane show, and its time is now. If there was an emoji for the way Italian men in American movies kiss the tips of their fingers to express their absolute satisfaction, I’d insert it here. Bravissimo.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @RajaSen.

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