Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Season 2 of Master of None? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes.
It hurts watching someone get their heart broken. At the end of Season 1 of Master of None, Dev (Aziz Ansari) suffered just that fate, as his relationship with his girlfriend Rachel sputtered and died. She moved to Tokyo, he moved to Italy. But did they move on?
Season 2 seems to suggest so. Dev is in Italy eating pasta faster than he can make it, and, even though a birthday message from Rachel hangs over the first episode, he seems unbothered by it. He’s enjoying the single life again, and what better way to do it than riding a moped through the Italian countryside with his eternal wingman, Arnold (Eric Wareheim)?
Season 2 has some of the most purely enjoyable episodes of Netflix’s show so far. Perhaps strangely, they’re also the most imposing at first glance. Like in Season 1, they take a step back and explore a tangential issue, using the cast’s rare diversity of race and sexuality to tell a story from a true and sincere viewpoint.
Religion and Door #3 feature Dev’s parents, Shouketh and Fatima, the show’s low-key MVPs, at their finest. If you’re feeling generous, you could describe their acting as naturalistic – if you’re feeling cruel, you could call it wooden – but either way, they’re one of the funniest things about Master of None. They’re never really used as stock embarrassing parents, but real people, who have their own problems and sense of humour.
Religion is a great example, where Dev pretends to be a devout Muslim to please his strict aunt and uncle, but ends up corrupting their 20-something son to the ways of the (pig) flesh. From Dev’s point of view he’s just honestly rejected a religion he doesn’t believe in, but to his parents, it’s a slap in the face, as if they’ve personally failed him. As Dev explains: “For you guys religion has this cultural value. It’s not like that for me! It’s people calling me terrorist and getting pulled out of airport security lines.”
On the other end of the performance scale is Bobby Cannavale, who features as Chef Jeff, a producer and, later, a mentor to Dev, as he navigates the sugary purgatory of Clash of the Cupcakes. Cannavale is terrific, and the closest thing the series has had to a villain. Normally adept at humanising their creations, scriptwriters Ansari and Alan Yang lay out a tightrope of a personality which Cannavale walks with his eyes shut. He’s volatile, unpredictable and charismatic. He has a wonderful way with his line readings where you never quite know if he’s furious or delighted.
The difficulty of reading other people’s emotions is a key theme of this series. It manifests itself in Dev’s struggle to keep Jeff happy, while progressing his career, and also in the series’ main romantic plot. Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) has everything Dev could ever want: beauty, wit, intelligence, a pasta-making Italian nonna… and one thing he doesn’t: a boyfriend. It’s a classic scenario, but Ansari and Yang craft a strong emotional narrative around it. Ansari does some of the best work of his career in the season finale, with an emotionally scorched performance. As the feelings between Dev and Francesca rise to the surface, Dev’s frustration and loneliness are palpable and truly endearing.
But they’re not really justified. The biggest problem with this series is that a lot of it revolves around a moral conundrum that paints ever-lovable Dev in quite a harsh light. We can all sympathise with the feeling of wanting someone we can’t have, dreaming of a world where things are just that tiny bit different, but few of us act on it. By having Dev pursue Francesca, despite her boyfriend (and then fiancé), Ansari and Yang risk turning him into one of those classic ‘Nice Guy’ stereotypes, someone who talks the talk about being a good person and doing the right thing, but actually indulges in all the hypocrisies that he rails against. It’s arguably a more interesting decision than keeping Dev as a loveable goofball with bad luck, but it makes the series more disjointed than ever before.
Master of None has always been a bit haphazard, meshing romantic A plots with witty thinkpieces on identity, but the two are combined with less skill this time around. It would be a shame to lose either – take Thanksgiving, the stand-out episode of the series, helmed by its best director, Melina Matsoukas. It’s full of performances so rich in detail, like those from Denise (Lena Waithe) and her on-screen mother (Angela Bassett), that they speak directly to you. The elegant script has a sincere cultural specificity that illuminates and humanises so much, like the running joke that black lesbian teens such as Denise can have crushes on Jennifer Aniston too – a tiny detail that’s like flicking a switch and connecting countless diverse cultures.
Master of None aims higher than its first season, and takes a few more failures on the chin as a result. A few episodes – First Dates, Dinner Party – are forgettable, and Francesca is a much weaker foil for Dev than Rachel (Noël Wells). She mostly exists as forbidden fruit, and while she’s given her own passions and quirks by the writers, Mastronardi’s performance leaves a little to be desired. It might feel like a lazy solution, but perhaps the easiest way to tighten the show and lighten the tone would be to bring back Rachel. She has a strange role in this season, almost defined by her absence. She crops up in tiny but significant moments, enough to make you think Ansari and Yang aren’t quite done with her yet.
Let’s hope not. She was the perfect partner for Dev, both comedically and romantically, and if there’s one thing this season proves it’s that watching Dev in love is much better than watching him without it.
Master of None: Season 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.