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The Unearned Reinvention of ‘Master of None’

‘Moments in Love’ forfeits the greatest advantage television has in exploring weighty, worthwhile themes: time, and the intimacy that comes with it

Netflix/Ringer illustration

It’s a good thing WandaVision recently gave a Marvel-sized platform to an obscure metaphysical concept like the Ship of Theseus, because it’s a useful way to think about the latest season of Master of None. In short, the hypothetical asks whether an object—be it a seafaring vessel or an intelligent synthezoid powered by an Infinity Stone—retains its identity when you switch out all of its components. The same question applies, in a less literal sense, to a certain TV show. If Master of None changes its setting, tone, protagonist, and structure, is it really still Master of None?

After a four-year hiatus, Master of None returned to Netflix last Sunday with a new subtitle: Moments in Love. The augmented name is a preview of just how different the five-episode season is from the two that came before it. Master of None began as Aziz Ansari’s version of Louie, Seinfeld, or Broad City: a comic’s thinly fictionalized self-portrait of their life in New York. Ansari’s alter ego was an actor named Dev Shah, but he’s also a hip 30-something obsessed with restaurants and romantic relationships. The line between Dev and Aziz was deliberately blurred, turning Master of None into an extension of Ansari’s particular brand of conscientious cool. Dev’s parents were even played by Ansari’s own.

Even as he was promoting Master of None’s widely lauded Season 2, Ansari indicated the show in its initial form had likely run its course. “I’ve got to become a different guy before I write a third season, is my personal thought,” he told New York at the time. “I’ve got to get married or have a kid or something. I don’t have anything else to say about being a young guy being single in New York eating food around town all the time.” The problem with making a show about your life is that not everyone’s life can support unlimited seasons of TV.

Ansari did not become a different guy before directing and cowriting Moments in Love—or, if he did, he didn’t choose to make more Master of None about it. Instead, Moments in Love shuffles and shrinks the show’s ensemble. Dev makes a few cameos, but the true star is now Denise, Dev’s wisecracking childhood friend who turned into a breakout role for multihyphenate Lena Waithe. Since Master of None’s debut in 2015, Waithe has become a prolific writer and producer. (She’s Ansari’s coauthor on the scripts for Moments in Love.) But, until now, she hasn’t had a starring role as an actor. As befits a show largely produced during the pandemic, Moments in Love is essentially a two-hander, pairing Waithe with Naomi Ackie (Small Axe, The End of the F***ing World) as halves of a troubled marriage.

If all Moments in Love did were foreground Denise and introduce her wife, Alicia, it would be a radical shift from Master of None’s status quo. But the Denise of Moments in Love isn’t just older and sadder than the Denise of earlier Master of None. She’s unrecognizable, with only a passing resemblance to Dev’s erstwhile brunch buddy. This Denise is a New York Times–best-selling author, though literary aspirations never figured into her previous appearances—not even “Thanksgiving,” the spotlight episode focused on Denise and her family. “Remember when I was working for all those wack-ass magazines, pretending to be a writer?” she asks. Dev might, but we don’t.

It’s possible this transformation is part of the point; Master of None suggests as much when Dev visits Denise at her and Alicia’s spectacular home in upstate New York. “We used to have it so good,” he laments. “Running around New York, doing whatever we wanted, having fun every day. I never realized how good I had it.” Inching toward middle age means leaving behind a carefree youth. Conflict in Master of None used to mean brainstorming an opener for dating apps. (“Going to Whole Foods, want me to pick you up anything?”) With Moments in Love, the problems scale up to infidelity and miscarriage, among other difficulties. Sometimes, our younger selves really do feel like strangers. If the new Denise and Dev—now unemployed, in an unhappy relationship, and living with his parents—serve a purpose, it’s showing that.

But this Denise is so far from her former self she feels like an entirely new person, an impression Ansari compounds with his direction. The departure from Master of None’s house style is so pointed it verges on the ostentatious. Where the first two seasons were letterboxed, this one flips the aspect ratio to a squat 4:3. Where the soundtrack was once a character unto itself, Moments in Love is silent for whole scenes at a time. And where Dev and his friends once had free rein of the five boroughs (and sometimes Italy), Denise and Alicia confine themselves to their rural idyll, captured in long, static takes. If Moments in Love has any connection to the rest of Master of None, it’s a shared knack for domestic lifestyle porn. The cabin at least makes more story sense than Dev’s luxurious loft, given Denise’s success and Alicia’s burgeoning career as an interior designer—not that realism was ever the goal. On Master of None, even the ennui is aspirational.

Ansari has positioned Moments in Love as a reaction to trends elsewhere on TV. “Right now, everything is so fast,” he told Indiewire. “The idea was to go in the complete opposite direction.” With Moments in Love, though, Ansari and Waithe have veered so far away from TV it doesn’t seem like they had much interest in making TV at all. Clocking in at just over three hours, Moments in Love has the running time of an extra-long movie; with a self-contained story about a couple’s struggle with commitment, it has the structure of one too. Factor in Denise’s metamorphosis and it’s hard to shake the hunch that Ansari and Waithe had a feature-sized idea that got made by shoehorning it into their already-successful TV show. A more compact, single-dose Moments in Love may have even been a stronger one. All those still shots work well when establishing Denise and Alicia’s rapport, but by the time we watch Denise devour a burger in real time, they’ve worn out their welcome.

There are other reasons Ansari may have chosen to divert the show’s focus away from his own alter ego. Three years ago, the auteur was the subject of a report published on the now-defunct In it, an anonymous source described a date with Ansari in which she felt pressured and uncomfortable. The behavior the piece described fell short of assault; even at the time, Ansari had vocal defenders. He nonetheless put a voluntary pause on his public life, a temporary hiatus that effectively ended with a Netflix special in July 2019. (Right Now opens with a rumination on the prior year before an awkward transition to the rest of the set.) But after stepping back into the spotlight to atone and reflect, Ansari has now partly retreated behind the camera of his most high-profile project. When a show is so tightly tied to a persona, running out of material isn’t the only risk you run. Over the past few years, Ansari has experienced a major life event. It’s just not one he’s chosen to dramatize.

Neither Ansari, Waithe, nor cocreator Alan Yang have publicly suggested Moments in Love is a result of the Babe piece and its fallout. It’s nonetheless natural to draw a line between changes in Ansari’s life and changes in what has always been packaged as a deeply personal product, especially when the change is this stark. Not that an entire season of TV exists for the sole purpose of dodging controversy; if that were the case, Waithe has had some of her own, making her an imperfect choice for the new lead. It’s more that when a change doesn’t feel rooted in character or story, the viewer can’t help but search for explanations off the screen.

The stand-alone season is now a staple of TV; even non-anthology shows like The Leftovers have reinvented themselves in their second season. Master of None stands out for just how late its remodel arrives in the arc of the series. The stylistic 180 is meant to signal seriousness, a more committed version of the Season 2 premiere’s black-and-white homage to The Bicycle Thief. Instead, it’s counterproductive. Moments in Love takes on weighty, worthy themes like infertility and ambition. But it forfeits the greatest advantage TV has in exploring such issues: time, and the intimacy that comes with it. There’s power in watching a character like Denise gradually acquire new dimensions. Fast-forward too rapidly, though, and the connection breaks between audience and antihero. A great TV character feels like a friend. When Denise and Alicia start arguing about a relationship we’ve only just been introduced to, it feels like eavesdropping on strangers.

In the final episode of Moments in Love, Denise and Alicia return to their upstate abode, now sold and rented out as an Airbnb. The house has the same wood beams and high ceilings, but it’s no longer a home. The decor is soulless and generic; mostly, it’s just not what they’re used to. No wonder the couple can’t rekindle their magic. To passersby, the outside looks unchanged. When you step through the door and take a look around, it’s all a bit uncanny.