This piece contains minor spoilers about the new season of Master of None.
The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was astonishingly good. It addressed universal issues like immigration and the lack of diversity in television by fusing nuanced, personal stories with an experimental, yet deliberate arthouse style. It was so good that it set the bar very high for its return.
The show’s second season, which is available on Netflix now, successfully continues Ansari’s empathetic approach to issues that plague people who aren’t straight white men, playing to the same strengths the first season impressed audiences and critics with—all while directly paying its respects to the golden age of Italian cinema in more ways than one.
But while Master of None still demonstrates plenty of ingenuity in its storytelling and character development, this season loses some steam with the one character that brings it all together: Ansari’s Dev.
For a character that is so well fleshed out and accomplished, Dev himself is kind of boring, even when he’s giving the most realistic and hilarious commentary on dating or immigration today. There are zero reasons to hate him or to even mildly dislike him, really.
He’s funny—everyone in the show always laughs at his quips. He’s considerate—I’m willing to bet his most repeated line on the show is, “What do you mean?” He still eats at cool restaurants and attends parties that play cool music. He is unassuming and humble despite hosting a very successful television show, and he has no real beefs with people except for villainous, overprivileged white men like Claire Danes’ dickhead husband from the first season and eventually Chef Jeff in season two.
Even in the rare circumstances that he’s being a dick, like when he’s fighting with girlfriend Rachel in the first season, or insisting that Francesca has feelings for him in the second, it’s usually pretty understandable. He’s essentially flawless, a normal guy whose biggest issue is the onerous and very realistic task of dealing with loneliness and being single in New York City.
Part of this blandness be the result of Ansari’s decision to use Dev as a conduit for other stories, an open platform on which to discuss a variety of topics. And Ansari is brilliant at telling these other stories. The best parts of Master of None are when it follows the journeys of its supporting characters like Dev and Bryan’s parents, or Dev’s female friends who put up with harassment and sexism.
For instance, the third episode, “Religion”—a sort of sequel to the instantly iconic “Parents” episode from Season 1—is a perfect look at how what it means to be religious changes between generations. In the episode, the pork-loving Dev and his parents (they’re back!) pretend to be more actively Muslim than they actually are just because they’re having dinner with family members who practice Islam more.
As someone who was raised Hindu but loves burgers, who receives consistent “sermons” from my mother while also questioning God, and who pretty much only says prayers when the subway is delayed and I really have to go to the bathroom, I absolutely connected with the episode. While it was about Dev, it was also about his parents and their attempt to maintain their culture through religion in a place that isn’t their original home more.
In the eighth episode, “Thanksgiving,” we get to see the backstory of Lena Waithe’s Denise through a series of Thanksgiving flashbacks: her burgeoning sexuality, how she came out, and how her mother (Angela Bassett!) eventually began to accept her. It’s definitely the most emotionally powerful episode of the season, and Dev’s role is essentially that of a supportive friend. And “New York, I Love You,” the sixth episode, follows the lives of completely random characters and masterfully gives compassionate depth to every day New Yorkers.
But while using Dev as a portal in this way was a smart thing for Ansari to do in the first season, it isn’t as compelling in the second. Its shortcomings are most evident when the show focuses on Dev’s relationship with his new love interest, Francesca.
In the first season, Dev’s relationship with Rachel worked because it truly captured the trivial, everyday aspects of romance, from sharing terrible Shark Tank ideas to meeting grandmas. It captured the decline from roller coaster ride from excitement to routine to ambivalence to fear. But season 2 forgoes this approach in favor of Dev’s burdensome quest to “get the girl.”
Francesca, the strikingly gorgeous and charming (and most importantly engaged) Italian woman he zeroes in on, is a larger than life character, a direct homage to the bold and enigmatic women of classic Italian cinema. She’s Mariangela Melato, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti (the latter two listed by Dev Dev as his dream celebrity hookups in the penultimate episode)—this refreshing but unattainable force that rips Dev away from his own loneliness.
And the writers certainly approach this bigger, more cinematic will-they-or-won’t-they possible romance with Master of None’s signature goofy and relatable wit. But between Chef Jeff warning Dev about women like Francesca (which is more of a red flag for Chef Jeff than Francesca) and Dev and Arnold breaking down every outing Dev has with her and strategizing whether or not to make a move, the show not only flirts with endless friendzone navelgazing territory, but the story doesn’t move forward much, and Dev just isn’t compelling enough to fully carry the plot.
Cribbing the tenets of iconic Italian movies makes a lot of sense. Master of None thrives on confronting existential themes like loneliness and purpose while incorporating multiple cultures and viewpoints. And again, its second season continues to capitalize on the success of the first, brilliantly rendering difficult conversations and situations incredibly approachable, relatable, and easy to digest. Season 2 is still setting a high standard for creative and engaging television. But by rendering Dev an essentially unflawed, ever-understanding, hyper-likable character, the show does buckle under the weight of the great cinema it reveres.