The first season of Master Of None, the thoughtful Netflix comedy starring Aziz Ansari and created by Ansari and Alan Yang, was one of the best pieces of comedy-drama to come out in 2015. Now, about a year and a half later, they’re back with a second season that is even better, more ambitious, more creative and more moving than the first run was.
Ansari plays Dev, an actor who left New York at the end of the first season to get away from a breakup with his girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells). When Season 2 begins, Dev has been in Italy for some time, looking at new scenery and learning to make pasta. He’s been making friends, too.
I would say more about the first of the 10 new episodes that dropped on Friday morning, but one of the sublime pleasures of the series in its second season is that the episodes are formally surprising, experimenting with style and structure in ways that never seem like quirkiness for its own sake, but like decisions made in order to underline what’s happening thematically. For instance, one midseason episode focuses on characters you wouldn’t expect to spend so much time with, not merely because it brings something fresh (though that’s true), but because it acknowledges and thus reduces the solipsism that can come through in a series that does nothing but examine in closer and closer detail one man’s journeys through the city with his pals. By the very act of making that episode, the show contextualizes Dev differently, as a man who is engaging and entertaining, but who is surrounded by people in New York who are just as interesting and significant as he is. It makes the focus on him explicitly arbitrary, at some level. It makes him seem smaller, more fragile, and more at the mercy of a much bigger world.
But perhaps the best thing about this second season is its steady reliance on the episode as the unit of television. As television has started to involve itself more deeply in serialized storytelling, one of its constant tensions is between people who value the integrity of an individual episode and people who don’t — people who want you to think of a 10-episode series as “an eight-hour movie,” or whatever the case may be, interrupted for reasons of convenience, but really just one big chunk, structured thusly. What Master Of None is doing so well in its second season is having the best of both worlds: It’s a story that deepens and intensifies throughout the season, but it builds individual episodes to make them creatively distinct.
For instance, one episode focuses on a single supporting character over a period of many years. One is styled like an old movie. One is nearly an hour long — the others are all not much over a half-hour — for reasons that make perfect sense and are fully justified by the context of the story. What the show looks and sounds like, and how it’s put together, can change from episode to episode, but it remains faithful to who Dev is and what his struggles are.
Guest stars abound: Bobby Cannavale as a Bourdain-like TV host, Ansari’s parents as Dev’s parents (they were in the first season, too), several wonderful actresses and comics (Aparna Nancherla and Condola Rashad among them) in a ragtag tour through Dev’s dating app adventures, and a guest I just don’t want to spoil, because if you haven’t heard about him/her, I want you to be as surprised as I was.
Every now and then, a show puts together a run of episodes in which it seems like all the pieces are perfectly fit together: the style, the writing, the acting, the things that make it familiar, the things that make it new and the ideas around which it’s revolving. In particular, although Dev’s dating life provides a lot of fodder for jokes in both seasons, Season 2 engages with real and false ideas about love in a way that seems to flow naturally from the stand-up that led to Ansari’s thoughtful book, Modern Romance, a couple of years ago. Ansari and Yang demonstrate a real understanding of how entwined love is with imagery, and how real love is so intoxicating that staying prepared to make the rational choices it requires can be brutally difficult.
It’s a season that’s somehow both old-fashioned and modern, particularly when it explores both the serious and funny sides of how text relationships work — the way simple exchanges stand not only for themselves but for all the things it means that you’ve chosen to have them. To text and old girlfriend “hello,” for instance, is not just “hello” — it is “Hello, now you can try to figure out why I decided to text you.”
These 10 episodes are rewarding, wise, moving and suffused with an experimental energy that not every “here’s a single person bumming around with friends” comedy can offer. Gobbled up in a bunch or spaced out over a few viewings, they have a whole lot to offer.
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