With the new season of “Master on None,” Aziz Ansari proves he is becoming the Jerry Seinfeld of our time.
Dev loves pasta, Dev loves to cook, so Dev moves to Italy for a while to learn how to make pasta in Modena. He is an American of Indian descent: we know this character from the lauded comedy series Master of None. The conceit of the first episode of the second season is both silly and ambitious — a somewhat clueless American riding his bike through a gorgeous European city, charming old ladies and befriending chubby kids. Yet it works in the hands of Aziz Ansari, the creator, writer, and protagonist of this nice little show.
It is weird to shoot that first story in Italy in black-and-white. Is Ansari being pretentious, or is he making fun of pretentious European filmmakers who subject us to a colorless world in a time of 3D-4K reality? I don’t know, but soon I forgot how annoying I find the black-and-white “movement.” I just laughed at the slapstick ensuing when Dev’s phone was stolen on a terrace, setting in motion a fast-and-furious sequence of chase, confrontation, yelling, and confusion in the streets of Modena.
Ansari’s motives are clear. He has described how he grew up not seeing anyone like him — a brown kid from India — in film or TV. Instead of complaining about it, he decided to become the actor/writer/director he missed seeing when he was young. Regardless of his motives, Ansari has an appealing set of talents. He makes you smile and sometimes laugh, think but not agonize. And he never takes himself too seriously. There is a Seinfeldian lightness to his comedy. Smart takes on everyday life, providing subtle commentary on friendship and relationships in New York and the world. He is also a generous spirit. Ansari writes lovely roles for his character’s friends and love interests, an eclectic group of unknown, talented actors for his Dev to flirt, joke, dine, and text with.
He and co-writer Alan Yang seem to find grit and joy in the younger generation. No nonsense here about safe spaces and micro-aggressions. Rather, the show is full of enjoyable micro-aggressions that everyone commits against everyone else all the time. Small cultural taboos are dismantled left and right. Good comedy cannot be sensitive about your feelings. Dev is a sensitive guy, but not about anyone’s feelings.
The second season has been available on Netflix for a while. But this holiday weekend is a good time to pay homage, just in case you are looking for something binge-worthy and relaxing as summer comes to its unofficial close. Before “Peak TV,” what did we do on lazy summer weekends with no half-decent movie coming out? This Labor Day is the second weekend in a row with no films worth seeing or writing about. Luckily we have TV.
Like season 1, the new ten episodes still have that easygoing vibe. Oftentimes they are about nothing, or not much in any case. But Ansari’s charm is infectious. He is witty without being crude, smart without being arrogant. With his writing partner Yang he has created an easygoing show. Not a lot of laugh-out-louds here, but bemused smiling? Absolutely.
Not all of season 2 is outstanding. The episode called “First Date” feels cheap and easy. It’s somewhat entertaining to watch Dev go through a series of bad dates. But in truth this episode is about nothing but the agony of dating in our swiping era. If the best jokes of a 26-minute story are about guys sending “dick pictures” to women they don’t know, we can conclude there is not much to see here. And a few episodes earlier there is a part with a deaf couple arguing about sex in a store. Perhaps it is brave — and rare — to have minutes of total silence in which the viewer “listens” to actors in sign language, with subtitles. But a gimmick like that only works if there is a story, which in this particular episode is missing.
Of course, the joy of streaming is that you can skip the unpleasant parts. As it happens, the lame dating episode is followed by “The Dinner Party,” which is wildly entertaining. Though it seems implausible for Dev to get invited to a fancy dinner party hosted by a celebrity chef (the superb Bobby Cannavale, playing a believable parody of Anthony Bourdain). The testosterone-fueled chef is friends with John Legend, and Dev is there. Desperately looking for a date to join him, he invites his gorgeous friend Francesca, who happens to be visiting from Italy. She has a boyfriend, which we choose to forget when we see Dev and her exchange looks of longing as Legend plays a tune during the party. It ends with Dev alone in an Uber: a long, cool sequence in which we share his existential sadness of not getting the girl — for now.
Episodes like this show Ansari’s writing and acting skills, as well as the directing prowess of Eric Wareheim, the massive, bearded actor who also plays Dev’s friend — perfectly named Arnold — in most episodes.
Most touching are the episodes in which Dev deals with his Indian parents — his father is played by his actual father. Just like The Big Sick, a movie I liked, Aziz shows us a secular unbeliever struggling to combine his modern ways with his Muslim parents’ traditionalism. After hurting his mom’s feelings and appeasing his furious dad, he ends one episode (titled “Religion”) in a way both light and breezy. Clashes of faith in families are tough but not unique, he signifies.
Light and breezy, that’s how this entire show is: a beach read of a series, perfect for Labor Day.
Master of None was created by Aziz Ansari, who also stars in the show. Both seasons are streaming on Netflix.