“America is grappling with cultural diversity, and I just want to put a show on that represents the world in which I live.” – David Alan Grier
Two years ago, when Aziz Ansari’s freshman outing as a showrunner, creator, executive producer, occasional director, and star hit the ever expanding world of Netflix’s original content, it signaled the arrival of a new truly original comedic voice paired with a refreshingly diverse team of artists collaborating to better represent a multiplicity of human experiences. Though it featured some early episode growing pains, by the mid-season point, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang began to make more daring choices, breaking from convention, and MASTER OF NONE became one of the most honest, insightful, and bold television comedies of 2015. With the advent of the second season, many were curious to see if Ansari and Yang could recapture the magic in their next go around. To say they succeeded might be an understatement, as the newest season available for streaming not only assures that the charm, sincerity, and distinctive quality is far from lost, it also continues to break ground by achieving new heights in inventiveness, storytelling, and deep feeling. It’s back and better than ever, more timely, more cinematic, and more moving than before, making it an early standout as one of the best television programs of 2017 so far.
Struggling New York actor and food-lover Dev Shaw (Ansari) is back, picking up not long after his surprising decision to travel to Italy at the conclusion of last season. He’s been in Modena, Italy attempting to improve on his culinary skills by becoming an apprentice pasta-maker at a local family-owned shop. It is clear Dev’s feelings for Rachel (Noël Wells) still linger after their break-up over three months prior, but Dev has made friends with some charming Italian pals, including Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Pino (Riccardo Scamarcio). Unshackled from the New York setting, Dev, and the show, indulge in the culture and beauty of his European retreat. The opening half hour, titled “The Thief”, is a delightful homage to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece BICYCLE THIEVES with a funny modern twist, and also breaks formula with emblematic and rich black-and-white photography. Touches like this spread throughout the season highlight Ansari and Yang’s love for cinema, and though Dev returns to New York by the end of the second episode, the wonderful references to the likes of Antonioni and Fellini are lovingly sprinkled across the remaining hours.
The Italian influences are perhaps the most notable and specific, including a stellar soundtrack rife with numerous tunes from the Mediterranean country, but the vast scope of references from French New Wave to Woody Allen and Richard Linklater to Wong Kar-wai, even a brief inclusion of DO THE RIGHT THING, show that Ansari, Yang, and other directors Eric Wareheim and Melina Matsoukas, are true cinephiles at heart. Yet they feel less like imitations and more like re-tooled and morphed sequences that tip their hat to prior masters while adding their own unique stamp. For example, the final scene of the fifth episode, “The Dinner Party”, calls to mind a similar ending to 2007’s MICHAEL CLAYTON, along with others, while feeling wholly re-invented for heartbreaking effect. It’s a moment that is unexpected in its unconventionality, yet simple, powerful, and evocative. In fact, the strongest episodes of the newest season are even bolder departures from episodic television form, including the chopped storytelling of the brilliant “First Date”, the wandering insights of the masterful “New York, I Love You”, the decades spanning events of “Thanksgiving”, and the almost feature length romance of the penultimate “Amarsi Un Po”. If viewers hoped Ansari and Yang would provide continuing surprises, they’re in for some real treats.
A large factor in the show’s personal imprint on these sequences is Ansari and Yang’s commitment to not only an assortment of perspectives in front of and behind the camera, but perspectives that are significantly underrepresented in the industry and the stories that are being told. Dev is obviously the primary character of the show’s overarching narrative, but, in many of its strongest moments, the focus shifts to highlight a new, unique perspective we might not have expected. Dev’s parents, portrayed by Ansari’s own parents, are given the spotlight in “Religion”, and their immigrant, as well as cultural, experience has directed them on a life path different from Dev, yet, by the episode’s moving conclusion, they have reached a beautiful understanding of one another. “New York, I Love You” weaves throughout the titular city, following the lives of regular working class citizens with myriad circumstances, providing us the opportunity to connect with a series of individuals we might easily pass by on the street, making for a fascinating, intersecting examination of how we all relate to one another. Perhaps the finest example is the journey of Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) in “Thanksgiving”, one that explores self-discovery and sexuality, as well as understanding and acceptance. Each of these episodes that breaks free from a generic mold is the show at its best, expertly crafted and sincerely told.
There is, of course, Dev’s personal arc, which features prospects in the realms of career and relationships, but in ways that find new depths from already established ground from the last season. Eventually hired to be the host for a cooking competition on Food TV, his ambitions lead to following his two passions of food and travel when he pairs up with the famous Chef Jeff, a fantastic, macho, self-absorbed performance by Bobby Cannavale who feels perfectly at home in this show. Still, what troubles Dev most is his budding feelings for Francesca during her multiple trips to New York, despite her relationship with Pino. These are an undercurrent throughout the season, both coming to full climactic prominence in the last two episodes in ways that are achingly joyous and painful in equal measure. Both Ansari and Mastronardi are phenomenal in what amounts to a small feature film where the two literally and figuratively dance around each other as they attempt to understand their feelings for one another, effectively paralleled in their viewing of L’AVVENTURA one snowy evening. There are plenty of rom-com and dramatic tropes at play here, but they’re not only effective, they’re also practically revitalized by the crackling chemistry between the two actors and the immense honesty with which they’re played. They may be the series at its most conventional, but they’re also the most heart-wrenching moments to date, and a great conclusion to a more mature season.
I’d be remiss if I failed to give credit to the visual sumptuousness of cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard’s compositions, because they elevate already excellent material to a whole new level. The two distinct dances that occur in the last two episodes are beautifully lit and photographed, sure to be hallmarks of the show’s aesthetic strengths. And with Ansari moving to directing some of the more ambitious and cinematic of the entries, as well as continuing to turn in a rich, fun, and honest lead performance, he feels even more deserving of placement alongside the likes of other recent comedic auteurs Louis C.K. and Donald Glover. There are a few moments where the new season stumbles, but they are brief instances that are quickly followed by it reorienting itself in stellar ways. Through and through, it’s a strong outing, even stronger than its predecessor, but one that’s willing to plunge deeper, go further, expand wider to best capture the diverse world we live in. There are many controversies at the moment regarding Netflix’s original content and its distribution, but one of the best arguments that can be made in its favor is that of artistic freedom. Without control of, and trust in, their storytelling, it’s doubtful Ansari and Yang would’ve been able to create this piece of daring, ingenuity, and singularity. And their story is so incredibly vital and important now, a vision filled with touching humor and pathos that reflects the lives of those who are frequently misrepresented or unseen. They invite us to empathize with the world around us, and laugh and love a little along the way.
Best Episode(s): “Amarsi Un Po”, “New York, I Love You”, “First Date”, “Thanksgiving”
(The Binge is a series of posts designed to reflect and review television seasons, or miniseries, as a whole, highlighting the qualities of this current state of peak television)