Master of None refuses to wallow
The new season of Aziz Ansari's Netflix show takes on longing without making you want to die
Aziz Ansari's comedy has always been insightful and effervescent, but it's rarely been political. Like Jimmy Kimmel, Ansari's humor sprang to a different kind of relevance during his Saturday Night Live monologue the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. It seemed the actor and comic might be pivoting toward a sharper, more overtly confrontational comedic register.
That didn't quite come to pass: In Master of None, Ansari has insisted on the right to remain a creative person rather than a brand. He has cannily avoided being typecast, whether as the self-aggrandizing scamp he played in Parks and Rec, the Indian supporting character in films (he rejected every role that required him to do an accent), or as a political spokesman as an American who was raised Muslim.
That fluidity has served Master of None, the show he co-created with Alan Yang, surprisingly well. The show's second season, which will be released May 12, is filled with rich ambiguities and an engaging lack of anxiety. Yang, who was a bigger character in the first season, appears much less often, but there's no anxiety about it. And in contrast to shows like Louie in which a comedian plays a version of himself hemmed in by self-made constraints, Ansari's "Dev" is a pretty upbeat guy, a TV game show host who loves food and wants love. It's a premise so vague, so touchingly filled with potential, that it allows the show to sprawl in some truly experimental directions. Some episodes of Master of None's second season are mostly in Italian. Some are in black and white. Some flirt with Godard and Antonioni. Some star someone other than Ansari.
One, "Thanksgiving," follows his friend Denise's (Lena Waithe) Thanksgivings from the time she and "Dev" are kids to the present, when she's out to her family and bringing girlfriends home. The entire episode focuses on a family of black women, with Dev as a kind of amiable witness. Another explores Dev's relationship to Islam and barbecue and his parents. A third cycles through a series of Tinder dates, only instead of reproducing the stale montage in which a protagonist endures encounters with various monsters, the episode keeps returning to the different dates with gentle, ongoing curiosity.
Rather than use the dating montage as a sympathy juicer to reinforce Dev's loneliness — which is how that trope usually works — the episode explores the actual experience of online dating, which tends not to be that everyone you meet is a horror, but rather that meeting strangers is terribly awkward and sometimes interesting. Sitting with another person with the express intention of maybe loving them means engaging in all kinds of subterranean collisions and negotiations that don't actually have a shorthand. There isn't always a lightbulb that goes off in real life, a moment that determines whether you'll swipe left or right. Instead, there's a lot of perplexity, a million fits and starts.
Master of None loves that perplexity. Ansari and Yang let the show splash around in curiosity and openness — sometimes to an extreme. The last two episodes are a study in suspense, the twist being that a show about someone wanting something desperately ends in a totally different character's point of view.
That slipperiness, that playful refusal to fetishize any one character's wishes, or grant their viewpoint more importance than another's, comes to a head in "New York, I Love You," an episode that passes protagonism from one person to another in a kind of perspectival relay race. It's a lovely thing, the kind of auteur experiment that stuns you with its lack of self-importance.
That philosophical restraint might be what sets Master of None apart. Ansari's sunny presence just doesn't produce the depressive tones familiar from shows like Louie, the kind we associate with high art. His point of view isn't acerbic or laced with irony. He doesn't believe that love is doomed, or that romance is stupid, or that chasing happiness is a fool's errand. He chases happiness pretty hard, with intelligence and a real awareness of the privilege he's afforded to do so. That's partly because he's young, of course. And successful. Still: In a TV landscape crowded with scarred and depressed protagonists who barely manage to want anything at all, it actually feels kind of new to have an auteur show where a character so straightforwardly inhabits his desires without drowning in self-hatred.
And this is a show about wanting. Not anxiously or even necessarily obsessively, not so much that you cease to function or hate yourself, but with an intense longing it judges to be healthy and human. Ansari takes love seriously. So does the camera. Master of None is Woody Allen meets Nora Ephron meets Antonioni. And that turns out to be a pretty fantastic — and visually arresting — mix.