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‘Master of None’ Is a Love Letter to the Episode

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix comedy experiments in 30-minute doses

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Master of None’s self-awareness starts with its title: It captures both the existential aimlessness of the show’s protagonist, Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari), and the proud tastefulness of its letterboxed, ’70s-influenced aesthetic. It wouldn’t feel right to call the series something like Aziz or The Ansari Show; the name signals Master of None’s distance from other comedian vehicles right from the start. But it’s the other part of the idiom — jack-of-all-trades — that advertises the greatest strengths of Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix comedy. The show affords itself a freedom to explore and experiment, even more so in a second season that improves on a promising first. In Season 2, especially, the show’s success comes from its embrace of the episodic form that much of highbrow television seems to have abandoned.

“If you watch different episodes of the show, you’d have totally different conceptions” of what Master of None is, says Yang. “If you watched some of the episodes, you’d think it’s really romantic, and if you watched some of the episodes, you’d think it was an independent film. It’s wide-ranging. I think that’s one of the strengths of the show, the unpredictability. I really like that aspect, where someone can start an episode and be completely surprised by where it goes and where it ends up.”

At a time when showrunners proudly boast of making a 70-hour movie — or a five-hour movie, or a 10-hour movie — Master of None is, happily and intentionally, an assemblage of half-hour episodes. Each one announces itself with its own title and credits sequence specific to the actors who appear in it, and distinguishes itself with its own theme. In the first season, that structure gave rise to both Norman Lear–inspired, issue-driven debates about immigrant identity and gender (“Parents,” “Indians on TV,” “Ladies and Gentlemen”) and more contemporary vignettes drawn from Dev’s hapless love life (“Hot Ticket,” “Nashville,” “Mornings”).

The show returns after an 18-month hiatus so Ansari and Yang could, in Yang’s words, “refill the well and not only be able to write about doing press for Season 1.” This season, Master of None tinkers more with structure than theme, trying out different storytelling devices in the vein of “Mornings.” The season opens with a black-and-white episode (“The Thief”) set in Modena, Italy, where Dev has put his New York life on hiatus to go make pasta and recover from a breakup. Then comes a clever montage of app-arranged meet-and-greets set at the same wine bar (“First Date”) and a time lapse of decades’ worth of Thanksgivings with Dev’s childhood friend Denise (Lena Waithe) and her mother, played by Angela Bassett (“Thanksgiving”). Season 1’s semi-topical chat sessions haven’t entirely disappeared: “Religion” is an acutely relatable consideration of how to behave around family when your lifestyles differ. This time, though, they’re joined by an episode that abandons its main characters for a doorman, a deaf bodega employee, and a cab driver and his two roommates (“New York, I Love You”). The episode manages to extend Master of None’s already-wide range, enveloping Dev’s entire city as well as his family and friends. It’s almost impossible to designate a “best” episode of Season 2; viewers will prefer different episodes depending on which aspects of the show they most enjoy. But for its daring and commitment — the deaf woman’s section is completely silent — “New York, I Love You” is my personal favorite.

When I ask Yang what, amid all the perspective shifts, tonal changeups, and globe-trotting, actually defines Master of None, his answer is disarmingly simple. “I really think it’s just us,” he replies. “Aziz is in most of the episodes, but even he’s not the star of some of the episodes. It’s really just, ‘What is our take on this? What is our taste?’” Master of None goes wherever its creators’ wide-ranging interests want, then filters that interest through a sampler plate of styles and influences, channeling legendary Italian director Vittorio De Sica one episode and Carrie Bradshaw the next.

Such internal diversity is a remarkable showcase of its makers’ Swiss army knife skills on its own, but it also serves to further the central thesis of the show: that people are layered and interesting, provided they’re given a voice to explain how. Master of None is, in many ways, a testament to the power of self-casting, a demonstration on Ansari’s part that while he can certainly be the silly enthusiast of Parks and Recreation or his stand-up persona, he can also be a romantic lead, or a pasta enthusiast, or the straight man to his own father. The show has an Atlanta-like ability to shuffle plots into the foreground or background at will, and to ease the audience into going along for the ride — one episode will center entirely on Dev’s dating struggles, while the next will barely make mention of them. Just like our lives, no aspect of Dev’s is at the forefront a hundred percent of the time.

But Master of None extends that same complexity to everyone in its universe, not just its star. “One of the things we really wanted to do in that episode was have stories that were every bit as interesting and funny as a Dev story might be,” Yang says of “New York, I Love You,” which he also directed. “These stories should somehow feel like they’re in the Master of None world, because one of the points we’re trying to make is our curiosity about these people and empathy about other people in the city you run into.”

Master of None isn’t an anthology series, but it edges closer to that style by prioritizing variety over consistency. “When we talked about doing the show to begin with, before the first season, we wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel like any other show,” Yang explains. “So when we started Season 2, we wanted to apply the same rule, but also extend it to Season 1. We didn’t want people to say we just kind of did a bad, lukewarm copy of Season 1 because it worked. We wanted to be ambitious. We wanted to take risks, and we wanted to experiment.”

Ansari and Yang are also working on Netflix, a platform that encourages them to take such risks. Master of None has no premiere date to meet or time slot to fill; Netflix can shape its release calendar to fit Ansari and Yang’s creative needs, rather than Ansari and Yang shaping their creativity to fit Netflix’s release calendar. That creativity will determine the future of the series, too. “Do we have enough juice to be like, ‘This is worth doing’?” Yang asks of a potential third season, which as of now isn’t a guarantee — not because Netflix isn’t onboard, but because Ansari and Yang may not be. “If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, it’s a good metric. I know that’s a high bar. The opportunity to create a show and just have a show on the air is tremendous, and I’m fully cognizant of that. That being said, we don’t want to do a season just for the sake of doing it. We want to do it because we think it’s going to be great,” Yang says.

A similar mind-set — never pull a stunt just to pull a stunt; go big because the work demands it — gives rise to what might be Master of None’s crowning achievement. The show saves the opportunity to do a supersized episode for when it serves the story, and when an extended running time will make an impression on the viewer. “Amarsi Un Po,” the season’s penultimate episode, runs 57 minutes on a show whose episodes usually hover around the 30-minute mark. It’s the culmination of a long, painful infatuation between Dev and Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), an Italian woman who shares Dev’s passion for food and adventure, and who also happens to be engaged. Like the best Master of None episodes, it feels like nothing else on TV, including Master of None — a full-blown, hourlong, heart-melting romance. (One more experiment: It’s told, in a way almost no rom-coms are, from the perspective of a straight guy.) If this does end up being a send-off, it’ll be a fitting one.

“It just seemed like that was the length the episode lived at best,” Yang says. “It just felt like it merited more than 25 minutes or whatever a typical episode is. We really wanted to show the arc of their relationship and how much they cared about each other.” “Amarsi Un Po” is the kind of crescendo that could happen not just on a Netflix series, but only on this Netflix series: one that embraces the conventions of TV even as it expands beyond them. Master of None is a love letter to many things: 2010s New York, friendship, the art of tortellini-making. It’s also a love letter to the episode.