There was never any doubt about the thoughtfulness with which Aziz Ansari, in the first season of his Netflix series, Master of None, addressed the kinds of societal divides — racial, cultural, generational, sexual — that most sitcoms either lack the vision to perceive at all or take on only with mass-appeal kid gloves. But that first season, despite all the acclaim it garnered, was easier to admire for its earnestness than for its actual comic and dramatic qualities. Few of the characters felt like flesh-and-blood human beings rather than mouthpieces for whatever perspectives Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang wanted to air, and Ansari, for all his amiability, never exhibited range enough as an actor to come across as much more than a less-delusional version of his Parks & Recreation character, Tom Haverford. The pedestrian acting and writing were emphasized by the creators’ decision to present all of its episodes in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio — a superficial attempt at a “cinematic” feel that only underscored how little visual imagination its directors brought to the material.
That widescreen remains in the second season, but with it comes a quantum leap in visual and narrative ingenuity. For this previous Master of None agnostic, it’s rather staggering to behold. You can sense the new stylistic playfulness immediately in the season’s first episode, “The Thief.” Drawing inspiration primarily from Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic, Bicycle Thieves, Ansari, who co-wrote and directed the episode, shoots in black-and-white while affectionately borrowing plot points and even a music cue from that neorealist landmark.
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That’s only the tip of the iceberg. “First Date” turns eight of Dev’s dating-app-procured first dates into a whirligig in which all eight are intercut together in parallel narrative tracks. Even more exhilaratingly inventive is “New York, I Love You,” which adopts a free-floating episodic structure inspired by, of all films, Luis Buñuel’s 1974 surrealist comedy, The Phantom of Liberty. Visually, too, the directors take more chances. One of the season’s most memorable formal gambits comes in the daringly extended single take that closes out the Eric Wareheim–directed “The Dinner Party,” with the camera trapping us in the back of a taxicab as Dev anguishes on his way home over his yearning for the already-attached Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), who is visiting from Italy, where they first met.
Dev’s forbidden attraction to Francesca drives much of the season’s plot, in addition to his own continuing professional struggles. Meanwhile, even the supporting characters seem fuller and richer in this round of episodes. “Token white guy” Arnold (Wareheim) works through his own lingering feelings for an ex-girlfriend at her wedding to a much-shorter Arnold look-alike in the Italian countryside in “Le Nozze”; he eventually becomes something of a romantic coach for Dev as he wrestles with his feelings for Francesca. And Denise (Lena Waithe) gets a showcase of her own in “Thanksgiving” (which Waithe co-wrote), which charts, over the course of various Thanksgiving dinners, both her process of coming out to her mother, Catherine (Angela Bassett), and her mother’s extremely cautious and gradual acceptance of her daughter’s lesbianism.
That episode in particular encapsulates the triumph of this drastically improved Master of None. If even the best episodes of the first season played like little more than glorified extensions of Ansari’s stand-up comedy, the series now finds Ansari and Yang more successfully balancing topical hot-button issue-mongering with specific, character-based drama. As a result, the moment when Catherine seems to at long last make peace with Denise’s sexual orientation is made infinitely more moving, couched as it is in the specifics of Denise’s love life, with her mother finally warming to her daughter’s girlfriend, Michelle (Ebony Obsidian) — especially after the disaster of her preceding love interest, the hilariously vain and dim Nikki (Erica Mena).
To be sure, Master of None remains as valuable as ever in its airing of minority perspectives that rarely make it to television. But perhaps the success of its first season liberated Ansari and Yang from the straitjacket of good intentions. With increased confidence and bolder stylistic ambition, Master of None, in its second season, suggests it’s finally on its way to achieving the greatness many prematurely ascribed to its initial run.