by Alan Yudman
Shorter is better. Especially in bingeable TV series. Seasons that are about 8 or 10 episodes long allow for better, tighter storytelling and more consistent quality. That may be most evident in the Netflix series MASTER OF NONE. The first season of the single camera comedy created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang was fun and sweet. It touched on relationships and how tough it is for a struggling actor to find work. It took subtle jabs at Hollywood typecasting. But mostly it introduced us to Dev Shah (Ansari) and his kaleidoscope of friends. Season 2 promised more, but went places that only a confident creative mind could go. This may be the best 10 episode arc of TV I’ve seen in a very long time.
The combination of style and substance is fantastic. Each episode is a mini indie film. The first “The Thief” is a 1970’s Italian RomCom complete with Ansari speaking almost exclusively Italian. It also introduces us to Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). More on her in a bit. Dev is in Modena recovering from a break-up and learning how to make pasta. Then as we move through the season we learn more about Dev and his friends. The depth of character exploration is amazing considering each episode is about 30 minutes (with one fabulous exception). There are three episodes that rise above the rest. In “Religion” Dev challenges his Muslim upbringing and realizes that rebelling against the parents that you actually love is hard on both sides of that equation. That episode also allows us a glimpse of Dev’s parents who are always a delight (and are played by Ansari’s actual Mom and Dad). In “I Love You, New York” the main characters are secondary as Ansari and Yang create a love letter to the city. And in “Thanksgiving” Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) goes on a years long emotional journey about coming out to her family that plays out in Dev’s annual participation in Thanksgiving dinner.
Those episodes are reason enough for this show to win every award that is out there. But they also aren’t part of the season-long storyline of Dev and Francesca’s flirty, yet unrequited courtship. Francesca is engaged to a man she’s been seeing for 10 years. The only man she’s ever dated. But there is a connection with Dev that is explored over the entire season and paid off in the final 2 episodes. Mastronardi is a revelation. She is able hit her comedic marks despite English not being her first language. Remember I said each episode is 30 minutes? Not the penultimate chapter, “Amaris Un Po”. That one is an hour. It is very special and the freedom to go as long as necessary is worth the extra 30 minutes.
An ever present storyline is Dev’s ambition to be an actor. He winds up hosting a baking competition show called “Clash of the Cupcakes”. He doesn’t love it, but it is work. It also introduces us to Bobby’s Canavale’s Chef Jeff. The two hit it off and create their own show for Food TV. That, like most of Dev’s life, gets torpedoed in the end and not always because he’s messed up.
Many have called this the Golden Age of Television. There is every argument it is. So many good shows, so little time. But if you are going to binge anything, MASTER OF NONE needs to be first on your list. Ansari and Yang have created something very special. Their gift is weaving comedy, romance and message into each story is not to be ignored or shrugged aside. I tried stretching the episodes out as long as possible, like saving your favorite part of a dish for the end so you can savor it. But you have to finish the meal sometime and all that means is you get to savor it again at some point. I can’t wait to dive back into MASTER OF NONE, whenever it appears on my plate again.