By Cassandra Kyriazis
Spoilers below. Also, I am actually very scared of @s.
Season 2 of Master of None is an uneven collection of television. It’s far from masterful (sensibly so, given its title!), and I don’t understand why nobody on the internet (read: TV critics) shares this opinion with me. It’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 91% and: I. Don’t. Get. It.
It’s tough to succinctly pinpoint why Master of None is lacking precisely because of the reason it’s lacking: the season is all over the place (and this review will be, too, for that reason also). Just like life! That’s something Aziz Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang would probably tell you about it. But actually, its inconsistency is less realistic and more uneven and poorly paced. And we’re back to me: Not. Getting. It. The show’s general premise is that it alternates between serialized story lines about Aziz’s creative-type character navigating dating in NYC and standalone episodes. But its rambling, naturalistic style has made this season unbearably inconsistent. Its high moments are high, but its low moments are increasingly low as the show attempts to do 20 things at once with only ten episodes.
I want to be clear: I’m not upset that Master of None exists. I will say, “Hell yeah!” to Aziz and Alan Yang giving us diverse representations of what young male douchebags can be like! I mean that tongue-in-cheek, but I also mean it seriously. Master of None tells sweet, relevant, and sometimes funny stories about minorities, minority actors, and just people in general. The episode in Season 1 about shitty acting calls for actors of South Asian descent was a necessary and funny criticism of Hollywood. I, like everyone else, was sincerely swayed by the episode titled “Parents”, which successfully brought gravitas to the ways in which children of immigrants can take for granted the past struggles of their parents when faced with the current struggles of their parents. It was realistic: 65-year-olds really do struggle with their iPads, despite the fact that they maybe once had to escape wars and poverty in the hopes of a better life.
And I think Master of None‘s whole point is this: its creators want to showcase what they perceive to be real conflicts and real feelings with, above all, very real dialogue. This is evident from the fact that Aziz cast his own parents to play his fictional ones, and even his cousin to play his fictional cousin in an episode of Season 2. In multiple interviews, Aziz explains that quirky little moments from the show are things that actually happened to him or someone he knows. This television show is an absolute tribute to the concept of “Write What You Know.” And that’s cool! That can work!
Except, in Season 2, it seems that Aziz wants the show to be true to life in its dullest moments. And at other times, he wants us to suspend our disbelief for the absolute lunacy of other plot lines.
That scene in the back of an Uber (Episode 5, “The Dinner Party”) after he drops off a girl (Francesca, more on her later) for whom his love for is seemingly unrequited? That scene that goes on for THREE FULL MINUTES? He did a Vulture Q&A and shared that this was supposed to reflect real life. Aziz claims he’s had so many people tell him, “Man, I’ve been in the back of that car.” I probably have, too. I honestly can’t really remember and here’s why: that’s a fucking boring real life moment. Sitting alone, wallowing in my own sadness at being romantically rejected is not a memory that caused my brain synapses to think, “Allow me to store this forever to revisit at any time.” For that reason, and also Aziz’s less-than-Oscar-worthy acting chops (he’s good, but he’s not justify-three-minutes-of-sitting-in-the-back-of-a-car-while-an-indie-song-plays good), that scene is self-indulgent and a waste of what should be more sparing episode time. In fact, I’d make an argument that about 7/10 of these episodes are evidence of the cons of the lack of restriction that Netflix puts on their original content. A regular cable or network comedy would require the line be drawn somewhere. For networks, it’s at 22 minutes. For cable, it usually hovers around 28. For Aziz, it was anywhere from 22-49 minutes. This temporal inconsistency lines up with the show’s varied inconsistencies. And these inconsistencies run throughout.
Take the first episode — titled “The Thief.” The episode is a thinly-veiled tribute to a famous and critically acclaimed Italian film titled The Bicycle Thief. I have never seen The Bicycle Thief, but the various articles I’ve read discussing the comparisons assure me that the episode contains shot-for-shot recreations that are spot-on. The tribute sets up a series of tributes to other famous Italian films, all seemingly alluded to because Aziz happened to go to Italy in the beginning of the season (for a pasta-making apprenticeship, on a whim). This tribute is also the reason that the episode is black and white. There are no other discernible reasons the episode is shot in black and white. And honestly the black and white is kind of a bummer, because seeing Italy in full color would be lovely.
But we haven’t gotten to the problem yet (which was pointed out to me by a kind friend whose knowledge of classic cinema runs far deeper than my own). This episode is about Aziz getting his iPhone stolen after spending a lovely and spontaneous day with a stranger he meets at a restaurant (we as an audience must suspend our disbelief at a chance romantic meeting like this). When his iPhone is stolen, he loses her phone number. This is sad for Aziz, who is starved for romantic connection after leaving his long-term girlfriend to live in a city where everyone is either a widow or has had the same significant other since they were 18. Ah, Italy. But let me tell you what this problem is not as sad as: a poverty-stricken father searching for his stolen bicycle so that he can finally start a job in post-WWII war-torn Italy in 1948. That’s the plot of The Bicycle Thief. For those of you keeping score at home, Aziz thought that it would be cool to compare his plight of losing an iPhone and thus starving for romance to a man losing his bicycle and thus starving both himself and his family literally. It appears that critics got so caught up in the homage that they forgot that context is important and this was perhaps in poor taste. The only common themes here are 1. Italy and 2. Stolen stuff. What’s more, Aziz can afford another iPhone. The dude in The Bicycle Thief assuredly can not afford another bicycle, hence the entire plot of that movie. Overall, this tribute exists for no other reason than Aziz’s love for pasta, the thing that brought him to Italy in the first place. Sorry, but I’m not buying that justification, not even an ironic one.
But we move from pointed, purposeful tribute to Italian cinema to a lazy evaluation of religion. The third episode, aptly titled “Religion,” plays out like a sad reenactment of the first season’s touching episode about immigrant parents, aptly titled “Parents.” It is, like “Parents” was all about parents, all about religion. But the drama suffers two-fold. The first issue is that the majority of the characters are played by Aziz’s family, not real actors. This was nice when it was just his parents, but the extension of Aziz’s (no-longer-chubby, now-totally-hot!) cousin Harris playing Aziz’s fictional cousin Navid is too much for this thin plot to bear. The second problem is that the story is painfully didactic. It opens with vague visuals of other families of various religious backgrounds attending church/temple/etc., and it ends with Aziz cracking the Quran that his parents gifted to him at the end of college after he realizes that his casual disregard for his parents’ religion has been callous. As if nobody’s ever thought to repent their blatant disrespect for the religion of their parents. Its purpose is clearly in line with that of “Parents,” but the point isn’t nearly as well-executed or as revelatory as the one in “Parents.” The episode’s biggest strength is its warm and comfortable portrayal of a religion in need of more positive representation, but that’s not enough to overcome its didactic nature, stilted acting, and overtly dull plot.
The cherry on top is that Aziz never once brings up being Muslim for the rest of the season. Not even a jokey “As-salaam-alaikum” comes up, so what was the point of his reflection onto its role in his life and his parents’ lives? It was nice to read the first page of the Quran and then forget about it? Guess we’ll never know, especially because it’s unclear whether or not this episode was meant to stand alone or be part of a serialized narrative.
I’ll spend my last rant on the bland nature of Francesca, Aziz’s main romantic interest this season and one of two threads in the season’s serialized plot (the other is about Aziz’s stint as a host of a cupcake reality show). Francesca is a strikingly beautiful woman from the town of Modena, Italy, in which Aziz completed his pasta-making apprenticeship. She has a boyfriend of ten years, Pino, and she speaks adorably lilted English because it’s not her first language. She’s having a crisis of feeling bored by her hometown and her boyfriend of ten years. That’s all there is to Francesca.
It took some distance for me to realize that Francesca has no discernible personality to justify Aziz’s total infatuation with her. This is largely because I was deeply charmed by the recreation of a scene from the classic Italian film L’Avventura in which Francesca and Aziz do the twist while dancing to Italian banger (a word another friend of mine used) “Guarda Come Dondolo.” It might be the best part of the entire show so far, for its relaxed and romantic vibe. Its singular excellence in the singularly excellent Episode 9 “Amarsi Un Po” is a testament to the overall scatter-brained nature of the season itself. If the main serialized plot line is Aziz and Francesca’s romantic strife, then Francesca at least should be a compelling romantic lead with a fully fleshed-out personality. A show can’t build its reputation around naturalistic and true-to-life events and dialogue when the main conflict of a season is built around the deus ex machina appearance (there’s a thin plot about her boyfriend’s business bringing her to New York) of a knockout woman who luckily is as interested in Aziz as he is in her. It’s not fair to force an audience to watch you in the back of an Uber for three minutes pining for a woman because that’s a “real” experience when that same woman is some Italian goddess whose very existence as a romantic lead is asking us to thoroughly suspend our disbelief. And therein lies the heart of why Master of None, while not uniformly terrible, is not uniformly great.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some things that I thoroughly enjoyed about the second season of Master of None.
Things I enjoyed:
- Episode 4, “The First Date” was a sleek, tight, and well-executed 24 minutes. It skates through realistic online dating app situations, but in a fast-paced and entertaining way that’s uncharacteristic for the season. There are no boring lulls while Aziz waits in an Uber for one of his dates.
- Angela Bassett and that lady from Freeform’s Young and Hungry play Denise’s mom and aunt in the episode about Denise coming out to her mother over multiple Thanksgivings so well that I genuinely want to hang out with their characters.
- The standalone episode about service workers (“New York I Love You”) is phenomenal. It might be the best one. I’m here for a chick signing to her boyfriend that he should lick her vagina more. That’s funny.
But then, equally, more things I did not enjoy:
- In Episode 2 “Le Nozze,” Arnie’s just like “oh, by the way, we are actually at the wedding of my ex-girlfriend of eleven years.” And Aziz is like “Oh, okay!” BULLSHIT. If this is supposed to be so much like real life, Aziz, then why pretend like it’s realistic to not know about your best friend’s ex-girlfriend of ELEVEN YEARS?
- I literally can’t remember what Episode 7 was about. It was that much of a filler episode.
- Was Aziz hoping to get an award for his character feeling “conflicted” that Bobby Cannavale’s Chef Jeff (whom his professional success now depends on) is revealed to be a serial sexual harasser in Episode 10 “Buona Notte”?
Overall, Master of None wasn’t terrible, but it was also light years from anywhere near perfect. To ask viewers to buy into Italian film tributes, didactic storytelling, forgettable plot lines about Aziz’s career, flat female characters, and unconvincing romantic drama all because it was executed in less-than-traditional television format is asking too much. I’d give it a 50 on the Metacritic scale if anybody deemed me important enough to be on the Metacritic scale. Maybe Season 3 will give us something a little less too real/too unbelievable/too didactic/too rambling and a little more coherent. If Aziz is even up for it.
Cassandra Kyriazis is trying to handle her post grad crisis with grace. Don’t @ her. Unless you want to @ her @CassandraKy and then maybe tell her this whole writing thing is working out. Or whatever. She totally doesn’t care. Are @ me jokes over? Fuck
(editors note: this Bio just got Meta)