'Master of None' proves it takes more than a punchline to create an audacious comedy
Note: This article contains spoilers for "Master of None" Season 1.
Anyone who doubts whether Aziz Ansari can be more than his shrieking and self-obsessed “Parks and Recreation” persona Tom Haverford or one of the most successful working comics today, sit down. With Season 2 of “Master of None,” Ansari and series co-creator Alan Yang have ambitiously crafted 10 episodes that capture a less explored branch of comedy: the laughs found in empathy.
When we left Aziz Ansari’s character Dev Shah at the end of “Master of None” Season 1, the final scene delivered a needed shake-up to an otherwise slowly decaying segue into Season 2. The series’ strong start—which critics praised for its non-traditional, comedic exploration of interracial dating, a POC’s POV of racial politics in the entertainment industry and overall writing excellence—fizzled out toward the season’s end. It appeared that Dev’s career and his relationship with girlfriend Rachel (played by “SNL” alum Noël Wells) was heading toward a formulaic, fairy-tale ending with Dev achieving a state of woke-ness about the realities of his industry and love. With a last-minute breakup that sent Rachel to Tokyo and Dev to Italy (to pursue his pasta-making dreams), this plot wrench aptly quenched a bit of uncertainty in the series’ ability to maintain an engaging plot line.
The storyline in Season 2 isn’t necessarily an improvement in subject matter, but rather in execution. If Season 1 was like an amusing biopic, then Season 2 is like if the director of any rom-com had self-respect. In Italy, Dev meets his Season 2 love interest Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), who later travels with her fiancé to New York City. While he travels the country on business, Francesca spends her days with Dev. In love with an engaged woman? How scandalous! Alert the church elders! This clichéd storyline has been done and seen before, and most times, it doesn’t work. But somehow, “Master of None” makes it work, grooming a relationship filled with a more developed, playful tension than Rachel and Dev’s relationship ever had.
Ansari acts more like a social anthropologist than a comedian this season, echoing the sentiments of his book “Modern Romance.” When he depicts the silly, charming banter between Dev and Francesca on a date, to the bored routine on Tinder dates with varying degrees of success (I will start using “Going to Whole Foods, want me to pick you up anything?” as my opening Tinder line) to the gnawing anxiety from Dev’s feelings for an engaged woman, Ansari and Yang germinate laughs not from an obvious satire but from an emotional connection.
And that’s where the comedy shines. Sure, we laugh at the obvious gags—like a tiny Fiat getting stuck between two buildings or a riff on a childhood screaming game—but the most powerful humor comes from subtle, awkward and all-too-true moments during Dev’s pursuit of love. We laugh not just when things are blatantly hilarious; we laugh because there are moments of self-recognition in the pursuit of love that make us think, “Yeah, I’ve been there…and it sucked.”
For me, the gold mine of humor succeeds because Season 2 Dev is way more put-together than Season 1 Dev. Season 1 Dev was preoccupied with understanding so many parts of his life—his parents, his career, his relationship—but these all happened in a world Dev was already comfortable in, which muddled the plot and character development later in season. Season 2 Dev has a secure level of self-esteem and a stable job as a host of a TV show, a parody of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” The motif of the season is making the ends of romance and self-fulfillment meet. It’s as if when Dev returns from Italy, he’s living in a different New York City than in Season 1. What he hopes to gain from the city has shifted. It’s a New York, though lavish and usually unattainable to the average Joe, visualized through Dev and Francesca’s adventures and trials that is at times uncertain, naïve and unfair.
If you’re an artsy person, you may enjoy the winks to Italian film (such as “Bicycle Thieves,” “La Notte,” and “L’Avventura”) that thrilled critics but were lost on casual viewers like me. One of the more successful episodes is when the season breaks from the rom-com storyboard for “Religion,” which shows generational differences in the balance between observing religion and maintaining culture. However, the best episode of the season is “Thanksgiving,” which discusses Denise’s (Lena Waithe) coming-out over a collection of Thanksgivings through the years.
Waithe, who co-wrote the episode with Ansari, shines in the scene where she tells her mother (Angela Bassett) that she’s a lesbian. Let’s be clear, Angela Bassett made that scene—I have never really understood what the parent of a LGBTQ+ child goes through until Bassett, holding back tears, delivers the line, “I don’t want life to be hard for you. It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world, and now you want to go and add something else to that.” But Denise’s helpless reaction to try to get her mother to understand that this is who she is makes this scene powerful. It adds a layer of frustration to the scene: we empathize both with the child coming out and with the mother reluctant to accept her child.
Such a powerful, emotional scene once may have seemed out of character for a comedy series. It’s a phenomenon that Billy Eichner poses in “Difficult People”: “When did comedies become 30-minute dramas?” And while older sitcoms have had their share of episodes dealing with more serious themes, to be an innovative comedy in the golden age of television you need to ruminate on dramatized, societal flaws.
While sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” dominate in terms of viewership (attracting 18.3 million every new episode), they are no longer new and their episode format has been beaten to death. These sitcoms use the winning formula of established characters that have the comic timing down to a mechanical, setup-punchline combo, but they aren’t the type of show that critics and comedy nerds talk about. Though “The Big Bang Theory” is probably the most watched comedy, 2014 was the last year the show was even Emmy-nominated as an outstanding comedy series. Unless you’re “Modern Family,” the older treatments of television shows are no longer enough to capture attention.
Pioneering series like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Louie,” and “Atlanta” are critically-acclaimed because they build the premise of a joke across a scene and the punchline manifests at the end of a scene or episode. Shows like “Veep” have fast-paced insults and situations that skewer D.C. government to the point that blurs the line between mockery and the political reality. Ansari and Yang have done none of this. And that’s a good thing.
“Master of None” is not the type of show where you put one of its jokes in your back pocket to dish out in roasting your friend or even bring up in a social situation to seem funnier than you are.It’s a show whose true ambitions are being realized in playing with episode structure. It is not interested in getting the objectively biggest laughs, but instead in connecting to a viewer’s personal story. In Season 2, subtle laughs and masterful writing leave me drooling for the next season release.