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When Dev Met Pasta

‘Master of None’ is breathing new life into a genre that’s been as good as dead for years: the rom-com

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

The beauty of Master of None’s second season is that you can watch it for so many different reasons, in so many different moods. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s devotion to encapsulated episodes lets them touch on a variety of topics, unfettered by any TV mandate that one installment connect to the next. Season 2 features commentary on navigating parental expectations when it comes to religion, an episode that spans 20-plus years of Thanksgivings as Dev’s (Ansari) friend Denise (Lena Waithe) grows into her sexuality and comes out to her family, and another that barely features Ansari, instead exploring the everyday lives of other, seemingly random New Yorkers.

All of those pocket episodes are well-crafted, moving, and interesting, and contribute to Master of None’s mosaic vibe. But the show does another remarkable thing in the episodes that center around Dev’s love life: Master of None takes the trappings of your favorite romantic comedies and applies them to prestige television. Episodes like “The Thief,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Amarsi Un Po” feel like descendants of movies like When Harry Met Sally and My Best Friend’s Wedding, full of their exuberance, immaculate place settings, and unrequited love. The only difference between Dev in Master of None and Julia Roberts’s Julianne in My Best Friend’s Wedding is that (a) he’s a straight man and (b) he’s the one longing for the friend who’s already engaged — and that he’s doing it from a swanky Manhattan bar rather than a suite at a Chicago White Sox game. With the traditional rom-com more or less dead in Hollywood, Master of None has swooped in to breathe new life into the genre, proving that the tropes and clichés that flourished in the ’80s and ’90s still have value in 2017. The romantic comedy isn’t dead — it just moved to TV.

Master of None fills the void, albeit with a straight guy twist. (It goes without saying that straight guys aren’t hard up for stories about their lives, but it is worth noting that this is a new genre for them, at least.) The rom-com’s most distinct characteristics are all present in Season 2: the mix of bordering-on-fantasy wish fulfillment (that apartment that he was able to keep after months in Italy!) and cutting, universally applicable observational commentary (those text messages!). It’s a move that at once serves the base that’s been hungry for new rom-coms while also expanding the genre’s reach and capability, with hours-long arcs devoted to unpacking relationships and love, unrequited and otherwise.

Season 2 of Master of None begins with Dev in Modena, Italy. He works as an apprentice in an adorable pasta shop, speaks Italian incredibly well though he’s lived in the country for only three months, and literally lives out his own impeccably constructed version of Vittorio De Sica’s Italian classic Bicycle Thieves. Somewhere in between, he goes to a restaurant to eat lunch alone and … bumps into a beautiful British woman who is also planning on eating alone, only she made a reservation for the wrong day. Does Dev invite the beautiful woman to dine with him? Of course he does! Does she accept? Of course she does! Do they go on to have a perfect day in Modena? Of course they do!

It’s completely ridiculous. Sort of like how two strangers plan to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle, or how chatrooms aren’t horrific cesspools in You’ve Got Mail. But like the shopping scene in Pretty Woman, or that Sleepless meet-up, everything that surrounds Dev’s romantic life in Master of None is so enchanting and well-curated that plausibility is hardly important. Who cares that Dev and Arnold (Eric Wareheim) eat lunch at Osteria Francescana, literally the best restaurant in the world, and are personally served by its head chef, Massimo Bottura? Why question how perfect it is that John Legend is at the same dinner party Dev is, or how perfect his decision to sing Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” at that party is? Likewise, it doesn’t matter that in “The Dinner Party,” Dev takes a woman to pre-dinner drinks at PDT in the East Village and then dinner at il Buco on Bowery — a neighborhood-spanning, wallet-murdering itinerary most non-banker New York City men would never set for a second date — because like in other rom-coms, the fantasy of Dev’s life is part of the show’s appeal.

But the window dressing is only half of what makes a rom-com. The other, more difficult half is an understanding of the agony and ecstasy of modern romance. Master of None has the perfectly hip-but-not-obnoxiously-so restaurants, the impromptu trips to idyllic museums an hour outside of Manhattan, and the Kraftwerk soundtrack — but it also knows how to depict what it’s like to move on from a serious relationship, or the futility of trying to make genuine connections in a digital world.

Dev’s De Sica jaunt in the premiere episode ends with the character sitting alone in bed, face lit only by the light of his laptop, the cursor blinking at the top of a blank text box as he painstakingly struggles to come up with the right way to reply to a harmless email from his ex-girlfriend. “Hey …” he types before pausing, paralyzed by the unlimited amount of responses available to him and the sneaking feeling that none of them would be the right one. Master of None’s second season is littered with these moments of poignant, exasperated melancholy; moments that feel so lived-in because as a viewer — especially a male one — you’ve actually lived them.

The most powerful observation comes at the end of “The Dinner Party,” when Dev drops off Francesca, the girl who he’s clearly in love with but who is also in a serious relationship with another man, at her hotel after a perfect evening. Wareheim, the episode’s director, leaves the camera on Dev for close to four minutes as the cab takes him to his apartment. Silently, Dev shifts uncomfortably in the backseat and forlornly stares out the rain-covered window as Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” plays. He’s rolling over the events of the night in his head, devastated by the thought that anything so perfect could end so dissatisfyingly. It’s a familiar experience for anyone who’s missed a connection or spent a night awake in bed, thinking up ways that a stalled romance could have played out differently; things that could have been said or done to make magic happen.

In this sense, the cab scene adheres to the rom-com’s tradition of evoking universal emotions. Stylistically, though, it’s an example of how Master of None pushes the rom-com genre forward. Imagine a shot this long and static in Must Love Dogs. And yet it works, providing an entryway into those familiar emotions that looks and feels new and different. Rom-coms haven’t historically been approached with an innovative, artful eye, but Ansari and Yang seem to be bridging that gap. The result is a rich combination of traditional rom-com spirit and the auteur-minded flexibility of Peak TV.

Television has enough antiheroes to indulge in, enough characters who are all idealized, macho id. What Master of None provides is a refuge from that — a curated, vivid experience that combines the frivolity and vulnerability of romantic comedies. Ansari and Yang built a world that any straight man who owns Stan Smiths would die to live in, but they also put up a mirror to the romantic lives of all of their viewers, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It’s no secret that men catch feelings, too — thankfully, Master of None stopped acting like it was.