Season one of Master Of None, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's Netflix comedy, took a freewheeling approach to storytelling. The creators took their time painting a picture of Dev's life as a struggling actor and passionate gourmand navigating family expectations and romantic entanglements in NYC. Wearing its Louie influence on its sleeve, the best episodes of the season were the most unconventional, like the one focusing on the overlooked experience of immigrant parents ("Parents"), the one about the struggles of minority actors on TV ("Indians On TV"), and an episode that effortlessly detailed a relationship across a year of waking up together in the same bed ("Mornings").
At its best, the show had a voice that felt urgent and unique, funneled through Ansari's particular personality: easy-going, infinitely curious, and ravenously hungry. Season two, which drops in its entirety on Netflix Friday, doubles down on the more ambitious episodes of season one, traveling from Modena, Italy back to NYC. It tackles 21st century dating neuroses and the behind-the-scenes world of reality cooking shows through the prism of New Wave cinema. It's not always perfect, especially in an unconvincing romantic subplot that never reaches the heights of last season's deeply-felt Dev/Rachel relationship, but it remains one of the most enjoyable short story shows on TV.
Although a year and a half has passed since it debuted, the second season picks up just a few months after season one ended, with Dev still processing his breakup with Rachel (Noël Wells). The first two episodes take place in Italy, with Dev studying pasta-making and thoroughly enjoying his fluency in Italian (just try to count how many times he says the word "allora"). The first episode, presented in black and white with nods toward the silent movie era, is both farcical and an homage to classic Italian cinema like The Bicycle Thief (the presence of a precocious random child helps in that regard). The second episode, which reunites Dev with Arnold (played with gargantuan glee by Eric Wareheim), is a silly tour de force that brings Dev's Italian loneliness into focus and drives him back to the city—it's also a reminder that Ansari and Wareheim, channelling their real life friendship ("Now we talk on the phone every night like we’re teenagers"), have some of the best chemistry on television.
The best episodes remain the most self-contained ones: "Religion" is a spiritual followup to "Parents," and was inspired by Ansari seeing his dad pretend to be more religious around devout relatives (it also includes Dev introducing his cousin to pork at a Smorgasbord stand-in). "First Date" takes an especially clever approach to hookup and dating app culture, with Dev sliding between multiple Tinder first dates simultaneously. There is expanded time spent with the excellent supporting cast too: "Thanksgiving" puts the spotlight on Denise (played by actor-writer Lena Waithe, and based on her life) and tracks her friendship with Dev, as well as her various girlfriends and struggle to come out to her family, over decades of Thanksgiving meals together.
My favorite episode of the season is "New York I Love You" (we'll have a longer conversation with Yang about the genesis for it on Friday), a joyous standalone installment that takes the short story/vignette format of the show and runs it to its logical conclusion. The episode begins with Dev, Arnold and Denise on their way to see a fake movie ("Death Castle"—a very Seinfeldian touch) only to pivot and follow a series of random New Yorkers going about their lives, including a doorman, a deaf convenience store worker, and a crew of immigrant cab drivers. It's filled with unexpected detours and delightful moments (my biggest laugh of the season may have come during a fight in a homegoods store), and carries the deep empathy of something like High Maintenance (just with far less marijuana haze).
All the extra attention on the supporting cast, the bolder cinematic references (there's a particularly memorable long take of Dev in the back of an Uber reacting to bad news that could be a love/hate moment for some), and the experimentations with form are especially important because there are some stumbles in the ongoing storylines that weave through the entire season. Dev's work struggles, which intersect with Bobby Cannavale's Chef Jeff (an Anthony Bourdain-esque character who becomes Dev's benefactor), is mostly fine, though I was hampered by wondering if and when Chef Jeff would turn out to be a schmuck (I blame Vinyl for this).
The major stumbling point for many may be the love story that almost consumes the show toward the end of the season. While his dating travails are always pretty compelling, Dev's slowly-developing romance with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), an Italian friend with a fiancé who makes frequent trips to NYC, falls somewhat flat. Despite the considerable charms of Mastronardi, the final two episodes turn her into Italian Amelie, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose fuzzy motivations and bouts of whimsy don't quite gel with Ansari's acting style. No matter how much the show tried to convince me they had chemistry, it paled in comparison to the lived-in Dev/Rachel relationship. There is a moment in the finale where someone notes that Dev's infatuation with her is like something out of a fantasy, which maybe is what they were going for with the relationship, but it's a slight misstep in an otherwise impeccable season (the fact that the penultimate episode, which doubles down on the romance, is twice as long and twice as slow as any other doesn't really help).
My reservations with that plotline only really struck me some time after I stepped away from the screen, so it wasn't a huge roadblock while watching. The show has such a lovably low-key, authentic vibe that I eagerly zipped through the entire season. Overall, Ansari and Yang have topped themselves with the best of season two, more self-assured with their voice, more in love with cinematic aesthetics, and even more curious about the types of stories they can explore.