Disclaimer: This contains spoilers, dummy! Also, as a white middle class woman, I completely acknowledge how my perspective and experience affect my interpretation of the show. Good thing this is an opinion piece, huh?
On Friday, 12 May, Netflix released the entire season two of Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s hit dramady. So, naturally, rather than revising for exams, I decided to binge watch the entire thing. There have been a flurry of reviews in broadsheets around the world discussing the new season and, as a first year film student, I’m obviously way more qualified to critique the show than any of these professionals.
“the nuance of both it’s humour, and discussion of sensitive issues”
Season one of Master of None was met with huge acclaim, nominated for 20+ awards in television. This resounding success has mainly been attributed to the diversity of its cast and perspectives, the nuance of both its humour, and discussion of sensitive issues such as race, gender, and religion. Season two certainly attempts to incorporate this reputation of topical issues; the ‘Thanksgiving’ episode follows how sexuality affects relationship with family, while the episode titled ‘Religion’ does exactly what it says on the tin, and there is a reveal of a previously sympathetic character as a sexual assaulter. The diverse returning cast of multiple ethnicities from season one, as well as several non-recurring characters, reflect both the tone of the show, and of New York itself.
As well as continuing multiple elements that were present within the first season, there are undoubtedly some stark differences. Certainly, all art, including good TV, is about interpretation, but anyone who is unable to see Season two as a love letter to Italian cinema is just plain wrong. If this isn’t made clear by the black and white first episode, then episode nine ‘Amarsi Un Po’, opening like a 1930-something European film, clearly establishes it. By the way, the title means ‘Love (each other) a bit’, and is named for an old Italian song. The lyrics are meant to reflect the singers agony; it’s easy to love each other a bit, but to fully love one another is a very difficult thing. Sounds notably familiar to Dev and Francesca’s relationship.
Let’s talk about that relationship. From episode one, it was clear she was to the The Love Interest™ of the season, but as the narrative continued, their relationship turned from a charming quasi-destiny, into something a little more sour. The character of Dev, upon discovering that Francesca refuses to leave her boyfriend of ten years, and now fiancé, slips into a fantasy sequence of her crushing his heart in a meat grinder. He claims to feel used. On his list of ‘Francesca Cons’, made later in the season, he writes “she’s evil”. Of course, these are petty and bitter reactions, but human reactions, nonetheless. The problem is the audience is already aligned with Dev. He is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘good’ guy. So, when he acts in a less-than-good way, writers Ansari and Yang don’t make as much of an effort as they could to condemn his actions, despite condemning the exact same behaviour earlier in the series. In episode two, Arnold declares his love for a former girlfriend at her wedding; but, by the end of the episode, comes to the mature conclusion; ‘I wasn’t in love with her, I was scared’. Master of None, in this sense, attempts to have its cake and eat it too, rebuking the ridiculous end featured in many romantic comedies where the protagonists chose the ‘magical fantasy’ of a relationship with someone they barely know, over their current long-term partner. And yet, Francesca and Dev still, implicitly, sleep together.
“well-crafted skill in reflecting real life”
A second, slightly off note, is the aforementioned reveal of an implied sexual assaulter. The character of Chef Jeff instantly moves from amicable, and comforting, to someone who’s every smile is bone-chilling. Here, Master of None’s well-crafted nuanced is skilled in reflecting real life; those who assault aren’t stock villain character tropes. They’re friends, and relatives; more often than not, they never “seem” like they’d do anything wrong. Once more, the humanistic yet morally grey response of Dev left me feeling a little uneasy. The focus is never on the effect Jeff had upon the lives of the women he hurt; and we know this show has the potential to leave our protagonist for an episode or two. Rather, Dev is embarrassed to be associated with someone the public don’t like, rather than someone who has implicitly done some terrible things. This is certainly a far cry from the Dev in season one’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, shocked to discover how some of his female co-workers are treated.
Through Master of None’s nuance, however, there are some faults. This slight slip in morality may be true to real life, but we adopt the ideologies of characters we identify with. I do understand that this show is from the perspective of Dev’s character, and, as a man, by definition, it becomes as impossible for this show to reflect the female perspective as it is to reflect a white man’s perspective. This sudden boom in the diversity of television is a wonderful thing; Rachel Bloom’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ gives us a narrative of a neurodivergent Jewish woman, the main cast of ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine’ includes two Latina women, two black men (one of whom is gay), and a Jewish man. Through creating more and more diverse television, we are able to understand a wider variety of perspectives, and a wide range of different sects of people, are able to see themselves. To quote Alan Yang, one of Master of None’s writers, during an award acceptance speech for the show; “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard and for so long that stories about anyone else seem kinda fresh and original”