The acclaimed first season of Netflix’s Master of None introduced us to Dev Shah, a 30-year-old Indian-American actor with a natural curiosity about the world. Its second season finds Dev wrangling with many of the same questions regarding his personal and career prospects. But what elevates it over the show’s brilliant debut is a relentless determination to expand its horizons — for Dev himself and for people beyond Dev’s orbit, and in the way it tells its life-affirming story.
Master of None creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, along with their writing team, use that wider scope to build on one of the most important elements of the series. The first season was rightly praised for putting people of color on screen, and this season leans into the show’s diversity even further with explorations of the experiences of immigrants, women, LGBT people and others.
More notably, the writing and characterization still manages to avoid coming off as in-your-face moralizing. The stories in Master of None are just as universal as the ones we’re used to seeing — it just so happens that they focus on people of color.
[Ed. note: The following discusses some plot points from season two of Master of None, but we made an effort to leave out any true spoilers.]
We see a more worldly viewpoint right from the start, as the first episode, “The Thief,” picks up shortly after the events of the first season: Dev (Aziz Ansari) is living in the northern Italian city of Modena, learning how to make pasta during an apprenticeship. The entire episode is shot in black and white. It’s an indication of things to come, highlighting what is perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Master of None’s second season: its storytelling.
In this homage to classic Italian films of the postwar era, it’s not Dev’s bicycle that gets stolen, but his iPhone. Both “The Thief” and the second episode, “Le Nozze” (“The Wedding”), were shot on location in Italy and directed by Ansari — and yes, watching them will make you want to book a vacation immediately. The season premiere shows off the narrow streets and wide-open piazze of Modena, but if Italian neorealist cinema isn’t your thing, episode two luxuriates in wide shots of the picturesque Italian countryside (in color).
From a storytelling standpoint, Dev’s European getaway actually ends up being less adventurous than a number of later chapters. Master of None continues to treat episodes as stand-alone short films; it’s unafraid to take a detour from the overarching narrative to spend time on a particular character or issue.
An early highlight — and a particularly relatable episode for me — is the third chapter, “Religion.” Written by Ansari and his brother, Aniz Adam Ansari, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about the experience of growing up in America with religious immigrant parents when you’re not much of a believer yourself. (Switch out Islam for Hinduism, and Dev eating bacon for me biting into a cheeseburger, and it’s basically the same story.)
When Dev comes clean during a family dinner about not being a devout Muslim and tries to order a pork dish, it angers his mother (Fatima Ansari, the actor’s real-life mom, reprising her role) so much that she ends the meal right then and there.
“You see, our parents raised us to be a good Muslim,” Dev’s father (Shoukath Ansari, also returning), explains to him later. “When you act like this, we feel like we failed you.”
As another showcase for Asian values like respecting one’s parents, “Religion” dovetails nicely with the standout, Emmy-winning season one episode “Parents.” More importantly, its ending accomplishes something that Ansari, in his terrific Saturday Night Live monologue from the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, expressed a desire to see more of: portraying Muslim people in an ordinary light on TV. The closing sequence flips between scenes of the Shahs enjoying their day-to-day lives — Dev meets friends at a Brooklyn restaurant, while his parents pray at a mosque.
Episode four, “First Date,” splices together shots of Dev going on first dates with something like a dozen different women, deftly illustrating the tedium and frustration of trying to find romance with a dating app. The eighth episode, which spans three decades, is a touching, beautiful look at how Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) figured out her sexuality and then figured out how to navigate her home life as a black lesbian.
Yet the episode that experiments with form the most is the sixth one, “New York, I Love You,” and it might be my favorite of the season. I’m not sure if writer Cord Jefferson was directly inspired by the classic Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield.” Either way, this chapter is merely bookended by appearances from Dev and his friends Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise. It goes beyond the typical scope of Master of None to give us glimpses into the lives of some ordinary New Yorkers: an apartment building’s doorman, a deaf interracial couple, a group of working-class African immigrants. And then it shows us something that unites them all.
If there’s one thing that Master of None’s first season may have done slightly better, it’s the comedy. That’s not to say that season two isn’t funny, of course. Scenes involving Dev and Arnold are usually a reliable source of laughs; there’s a hilarious storyline about the love life of the laconic Peter Cheng (Clem Cheung), the father of Dev’s buddy Brian (Kelvin Yu). And Bobby Cannavale has a very good recurring role as “Chef” Jeff Pastore, a celebrity gourmand with a personality that falls just on this side of the “asshole” line (at least initially).
But I didn’t find myself laughing out loud as much. Now that Dev and his friends are a few years into their 30s, everyone on Master of None seems more concerned than ever with life’s big questions. Dev lands a stable gig as a TV host, but his heart’s not in it. And the biggest question of all — finding someone to spend your life with — hangs over multiple characters this season.
The season premiere introduces us to Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), who works in the pasta shop where Dev is studying. They’ve become close, and it seems at first that they’re fine being just friends; Francesca has been dating her boyfriend, Pino, for a decade. But the more time they spend together — both in Modena, and later when she and Pino visit Dev in America — the more Dev starts to feel something for her.
All of their interactions are shot in the wonderfully, frustratingly ambiguous way that Dev sees their relationship: I’m definitely getting a vibe from her! She’s sending me some signals — it’s not just me, right? Man, maybe I’m just reading into things.
For the most part, we only get Dev’s point of view, which is obviously colored by his romantic feelings. And so I rooted for him while going dude, you can’t break up this long-term relationship. (One thing that did make it easier to support Dev: Pino is played by Riccardo Scamarcio, who starred as the villain in John Wick: Chapter 2.)
That debate in my mind was even more heated when — in the fantastic, hourlong ninth episode, “Amarsi Un Po” (“To Love a Little”) — Francesca herself wondered aloud about settling down.
“I mean, this is what you do, right?” she asks Dev when they’re hanging out. “After 10 years that you are with a person, you just — you just get married ... right?”
The relationship writing is some of the best stuff in season two, a cut above the already great story between Rachel (Noël Wells) and Dev in the first season. Francesca’s dilemma is made all the more real because we see how she behaves with Pino. And again, everyone is grappling with these issues. Last season, Dev’s immigrant father remarked that fun is “a luxury only your generation really has.” Master of None’s main characters are all millennials, and that generation’s pervasive sense of being paralyzed by choice — overwhelmed by deciding between life opportunities our parents never had, let alone considered — hangs over the show.
Arnold tells Dev he’s having fun sending “hi cutie” messages on dating apps, but later admits in a heart-to-heart that he’s still wondering if he missed out forever when a girlfriend of 11 years ended their relationship.
“I don’t think you're ready to settle down,” Dev says in a pep talk. “Have fun being single. You’ll meet someone.” Then, after a beat: “I hope. I hope I do, too.”
Sometimes, convincing yourself that things will turn out better is the only way to keep moving forward. That’s what I love about Dev’s character: He doesn’t have it figured out yet, but he’s an optimist at heart. These days, I’m particularly glad to have that — and all of Master of None — in my life.