Millions of people exist in New York City only to be ignored in plain sight, to live in our peripheral. Master of None’s sixth episode in its second season captures the spirit of these secondary characters through a masterful set of vignettes about the lives of a doorman, a deaf cashier and an immigrant cab driver. When two women enter a cab and begin discussing a new movie that somehow stars the trifecta of Nicholas Cage, Emma Watson and Tyrese, the driver is there only as dressing to the passengers. Over the phone in his native language of Kurundi, he complains that people in the backseat never consider that they may be spoiling a twist—“This kind of ruined my whole day,” he says, well aware of his irrelevance.
The cabbie’s living circumstances seem bittersweet, but in the end there’s an endearing acknowledgement that he and his peers have been seen. Better than any other romantic comedy of its kind, Master of None excels at depicting real people. The idea of love is hauntingly present in this series, and impossible to find for Aziz Ansari’s single protagonist Dev, who’s one of many searching for a cure for loneliness. Season 2 is conceptually more elegant than the first, while maintaining its humor, empathy and strength of observation.
For all the praise around Season 1, one common critique was the show’s focus around Dev’s romantic pursuit of a white woman, a romcom tale as old as time. This season again revolves around his unrequited love for an Italian woman—the first three episodes take place in Modena, Italy, and pull aesthetic inspiration from Italian cinema. But Dev’s dating pool is otherwise optically and realistically wider. A black British woman serves as the subject of the premiere (Dev mystifyingly loses touch with her), and there’s a smart episode about the circular insanity of modern dating in a big city. Dev meets his dates through a dating app (one Indian woman, it turns out, has a boyfriend), and brings them to the same restaurant.
These scenes feel at once ordinary and like a person living in the world as it is, though Dev is destined, party of his own doing, to end up in inconvenient places. He pursues his friend who’s engaged (the Italian). He has sex with a white woman who keeps her condoms in a mammy jar on her bedroom dresser. “Isn’t it a little racist?” Dev asks her. “Just show it to a black person sometime. That’s all I’m asking.” She’s oblivious. “So you think I’m racist now but you still had sex with me?” she tells him.
These are the deceptively casual observations about the role of race and sex in relationships that makes the show and Dev so likable yet imperfect. Rather than forced integration, the outsider’s stories effortlessly fit into Dev’s narrative. Very few accurate depictions of modern dating exist on television that show the real interplay of technology and traditional emotional baggage. In that space, Master of None remains singular. The way it all plays out is a sharp lesson in social anthropology.
Since Dev is our hopeless protagonist, the relationships he most covets are doomed and it’s partly his fault that he chases ghosts. Even as he seeks companionship and proximity of a romantic, lasting kind, he subconsciously seems most comfortable with emotional distance and distress. He’s in need of love, and yet resists anything potentially better than what he’s pursuing—maybe because the narratives we create for ourselves are often just ideas we cling to for comfort. This series subtly edges those meaningful internal battles into every episode.
In the background, Dev’s career—as the host of a competitive food show—flourishes before taking a dark turn, with help from Raven-Symone, whose fictional talk show is so eerie it could’ve also been an episode of Black Mirror. If there’s anything missing in Season 2, it’s a deeper exploration of politics. “We discussed rewriting it somewhat to address his election head-on,” said co-creator Alan Yang. “But we felt like we didn’t want it to warp the episode and we liked how it existed so we didn’t specifically address [Trump].” Instead, there are themes around personal politics, including a relevant family-centric episode about Ansari’s broken relationship with his parents’ Muslim faith.
This isn’t a show that repels hard conversations, but it does get off on happy endings. The most satisfying, through two seasons, is this season’s Thanksgiving episode, which centers the story of Dev’s friend Denise and her coming out. It’s a chance for Lena Waithe and Angela Bassett, who plays her obstinate mom, to shine and present a rare portrait of a black family’s struggle with acceptance. Ansari and Yang have improved on their charismatic romantic series with smooth enhancements. Rather than tragedy, the show wants to engage in levity. The comedy is that Dev can’t help being the jolliest and loneliest man on the planet.