‘Master of None’: Aziz Ansari Takes Us on a Trip

The new second season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy, Master of None, is an enterprising collection of 10 episodes that explore different moods, different styles, different continents. Playing the struggling actor Dev Shah, Ansari takes us on a trip to Italy and a few journeys to the past — Dev’s past, and those of other supporting characters. The major subtext of the new season doesn’t have to do with Dev as much as it has to do with Ansari’s growing ambitions as a filmmaker.

It’s filmmaking — as opposed to TV-making — that seems to inspire Ansari. The season opens with a lovely parody of an Italian neorealist film from the 1940s, most specifically Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves. The show moves on, returning Dev to New York City, where he auditions for TV work and finds a job that puts him in collaboration with a celebrity chef played by Bobby Cannavale. Whole episodes become exercises in style. One takes us through a rapid succession of encounters Dev has with women chosen from a dating app. Another gives us scenes from various Thanksgivings beginning in 1995. Some feature Dev prominently, as a fumbling romantic in the manner of early-period Woody Allen. Other episodes push Dev to the sidelines — or off the screen entirely. Aziz uses the freedom afforded by Netflix to make each entry expand or contract to a length that suits his material.

A couple of times, though, he misjudges how absorbed we might be in that material. And although there’s no other category you could assign this show than “comedy,” there are frequently whole episodes that elicit little more than chuckles — which is less a criticism than an acknowledgment that that’s what Ansari was aiming for: mild amusement. (Big exception: anything involving Master of None’s marvelous food-competition parody Clash of the Cupcakes. I want to watch whole episodes of just Clash of the Cupcakes.) As I binged the season, it occurred to me that there were times when Aziz seemed so wrapped up in the visual effect he wanted to achieve that a scene’s emotional content was lacking. For the first time, Ansari seems to be feeling constrained by the persona he’s created — the frequently smiling, fast-talking guy many people first met when he was called Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation.

As he was last season, Dev is surrounded by pals and family. This time around, the comedy of the big-and-tall jive-talker Arnold (Eric Wareheim) becomes repetitive after a while, and Ansari’s use of his real-life parents to play Dev’s has now strained the limits of their charming-amateur status. On the other hand, I wish there were more scenes with Kelvin Yu’s Brian, Dev’s buddy and a puckish figure who gives the show a wry edge. And Cannavale is enormously entertaining doing a downmarket version of Anthony Bourdain. Ansari clearly wants to explore a wider bandwidth of emotion in the new season of Master of None. His far-reaching efforts to achieve this are admirable, if not always effective.

Master of None begins streaming Friday, May 12, on Netflix.

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