I have to admit I wasn’t immediately enamored with Master of None when it premiered in the fall of 2015. Sure, the slice-of-life comedy created by Parks and Recreation alums Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang was pleasant and charming. And it had some smart things to say about the hazards of dating while female, the sacrifices immigrant parents make for their children, the racist absurdities of Hollywood casting, and the restless, late-20s stage of life when suddenly, not everything seems possible.
But Master of None’s second season, streaming on Netflix on Friday, demonstrates how easy it is to underestimate this series. With a cast of affable characters and a spunky, assured style, it’s the kind of show you want to hang out with. The show is deceptively low-key, its breezy tone obscuring a brilliant and, in the new season, even more confident mode of storytelling.
Season 1 introduced us to Dev Shah (Ansari), a 30-year-old struggling actor in New York who likes to take advantage of the city’s bountiful restaurant scene with his best friends Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Brian (Kelvin Yu). The plot throughout the first season centers on the courtship between Dev and Rachel (Noël Wells), a one-night-stand that turns into a live-in relationship. By the end of the season, Rachel decides to fulfill a lifelong dream and move to Japan, which motivates Dev to fulfill a dream of his own: Learning to make pasta in Italy.
The narrative arc of Season 2 is somehow both more compelling and less central to the season’s charm. It involves a woman, Francesca, Dev meets in Italy who is very much taken and yet who grows closer to Dev over time, particularly after a long visit to New York. Compared to Dev’s dynamic with Rachel, there’s more urgency to this pairing, partly because of the chemistry between Ansari and the Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi, who plays Francesca — a heat that never really existed between him and Wells.
And yet some of the season’s best moments have nothing to do with this arc. Like other made-for-streaming series like Dear White People, the fourth season of Arrested Development, Easy, and High Maintenance (which began as a web series before moving to HBO), the storytelling on Master of None is more circular than linear. Some episodes leave the main plot aside entirely, inviting the viewer along for an adventure; the first episode, shot on location in Italy in black and white, is a sprightly homage to classic Italian cinema, and features a standout performance from the hilarious young Nicolo Ambrosio (I’d watch a buddy-comedy spinoff starring Dev and Ambrosio’s Mario).
Master of None is just the friendliest show, with a genuine interest in people’s lives and an intuitive understanding of how to use its delivery system to immerse viewers in consistently delightful, truly empathetic television. A standout episode, “New York, I Love You,” follows a motley assortment of random New Yorkers — a doorman at a fancy high-rise; a deaf woman who works at a bodega; a trio of cab drivers who share a tiny apartment — as they go about their days, each segment a perfect little one-act play. Another episode, “Thanksgiving,” maybe the season’s best, takes us back to the early 1990s, when Denise and Dev first became friends. Through a series of Thanksgiving dinners stretching to the present day, the episode fills in the backstory of their friendship as well as Denise’s struggle to come out to her family. (The episode is skillfully directed by Melina Matsoukas, the influential music-video director who also helmed several episodes of Insecure.)
These little narrative detours add an element of whimsy and surprise, but they also come from a place of respect and curiosity for how people actually live; the show doesn’t try to force a linear narrative on the irregular rhythms of real life. The structure points to the playfulness at the heart of the show, a feeling that anything can happen if you open yourself to life’s possibilities.
Master of None Season 2 is streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 12.