It’s a bit uncanny, really, that when the first season of Master of None came out, I was in Milan. Now, here I am for season two in Sicily. It’s almost as though our unshakeable bond with Italy and New York has decided to have a little incestuous dalliance. Or it’s just the millennial narcissism talking. Whatever the case, as someone who has spent more time in the country than Aziz, I can safely say that his depiction of the coming-from-New York City perspective to the country that so many romanticize yet can’t seem to fathom or take into account just how ghetto the tradeoff is to experience the “paradise” of great food and “right” priorities is accurate.
But if you, like Ansari and myself, feel the same push and pull between two continents, you’ll appreciate his natural connection to and love of the country (particularly its gastronomical delights). It’s a reverence that stands out in the very first episode, “The Thief,” inspired, certamente, by Vittorio De Sica’s classic neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief, as I prefer to call it). As such, the episode is in black and white, and picks up three months after we left him at his crossroads: torn between trying to make acting and his relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells) work or pursuing his love of pasta at the source.
Obviously, he opts for the latter when Rachel announces her intention to go to Japan. Still attempting to learn the language, Dev capitalizes on speaking English with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), the daughter of the woman he’s been learning from. In fact, apart from Mario (Nicoló Ambrosio), the random little boy whose connection to the shop is never made clear (but then, there’s always a random little boy floating around in Italy), Francesca and her boyfriend, Pino (Riccardo Scamarcio), are the only social contacts Dev really has. This is precisely why, at the outset of his trip, he makes a reservation for one at a notoriously hard to get into restaurant to celebrate his birthday. When he tells Francesca and Pino of his plans, Ansari captures just how anathema it is for Italians to spend any time alone when Francesca asks, “What’s ‘me’ time?” Dev elaborates, “It’s like, time with yourself.” Francesca returns simply, “That’s sad.”
But as Dev points out succinctly about Modena, the small Northern town he’s in, “Everyone either has a husband or a boyfriend or a grandma. So I don’t know.” Fortuitously, it’s at this restaurant that Dev encounters Sara (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a British woman who lives in New York. Her error in making the reservation for the wrong date after traveling three hours by train leads Dev to invite her to join him. By the end, Dev being the offbeatly winsome person he is, there is a spark between them and Dev agrees to join her in Puglia later that week. The only problem is, just as he says goodbye to her, a thief, or ladro, snatches his phone out of his jacket, still slung over the chair at the enoteca where they were drinking. So begins the ultimate play on The Bicycle Thief, with Dev and Mario taking off to catch him (Mario has a special interest in getting it back as Dev had only earlier taken a photo of him with his favorite soccer player).
Modernizing the famed scene where Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), the protagonist of the film, sees everyone else with a bike marveling in how wonderful it is to have one, Dev, instead, sees everyone else enjoying the perks of having a phone–from texting to taking selfies–at one point remarking, “Why’d that guy just kiss his phone?”
This love letter to Italia, which continues in episode two, eventually reverts back to one for New York City (or more North Brooklyn, as this is Ansari’s usual stomping ground)—warts and all. Or should I say genital warts and all?
But Italy isn’t all bruschetta and beautiful women during the remainder of Dev’s time there—as evidenced by Arnold (Eric Wareheim), who comes to visit Dev for the two birds, one stone reason of going to his ex-girlfriend of eleven years’ wedding in the Tuscany region. On the way, Arnold gets the car stuck between two walls in one of the illustriously too-narrow-to-drive-through Italian streets, inciting rage and horn honking from the real Italians behind him. These details about the quirks and nuances of Italy are what make the initial episodes of season two so special, but, invariably, Dev realizes he belongs back in New York, where the themes and issues explored in season one—race and relationships primarily—are further probed in greater depth. The race element is, so Ansari would like to believe, subtle. And yet, at every turn, there is mention made of the plague that is white people. It’s apparent in episode six, when one of the doormen at a posh Upper Manhattan residence jokes to his co-worker, “You could do what white people do. Put her in one of these buildings,” about what he should do to get his mother-in-law off his back. Or when a cab driver in the same episode says in a different language to his brother, “Why are white people always talking about grain bowls?” It’s there again in episode seven, “Door 3,” when Dev calls out what causes gentrification to Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale) by demanding “Don’t tell any other white people about it. You’ll ruin it,” about an Indian restaurant he’s taken him to.
White people roasting aside, the relationship aspect is what takes hold of Master of None most of all. Most notably, “First Date” is one of the most succinct and biting commentaries on app dating, especially in a city like New York, where the only thing more disposable than the trash is the people you attempt romance with. Shot in a way that shows each first date as one continuous plotline, we see how Dev fares with each woman (mostly, not well), how they end up swiping right to “accept” him in the first place and how they tend to ill-use him—a rather refreshing perspective since it’s usually the men a woman tries dating that are portrayed as twats (see: that scene in Kissing Jessica Stein or Miranda speed dating on Sex and the City). From having sex with a girl who keeps her condoms in an offensive Aunt Jemima cookie jar to being told twice that he’s more friend material than anything else, Dev comes to the conclusion he already knew: a meaningful connection is hard to find (hence, the pain of involuntarily relinquishing Sara in “The Thief” by losing her number with his phone).
And so, when Francesca comes to town with Pino for one of his tile-related business trips, he can’t help but notice their chemistry. Plus, as his role as a host of a Cupcake Wars-inspired show called Clash of the Cupcakes starts to wear thin, Dev begins to seek solace in the notion of a job change after becoming closer to the producer of the show, the previously named Chef Jeff, a renowned culinary presence in the vein of Anthony Bourdain. It is in this way that he is able to take Francesca as his date to a party that makes her see he’s more than just a zany aspiring pasta maker: he’s the type who can get her access to the magic spontaneity of John Legend playing an impromptu tune on the piano. But Francesca’s commitments to Pino and Italy leave open a unique episodic gap entitled, “New York, I Love You” (Ansari and Yang are apparently all about movie homages this season). While others have turned their backs on the city in favor of shit holes like Portland and L.A., Ansari proves loyalty to New York isn’t without its rewards. Like meeting the son of John Larkin (a.k.a. “Scatman”) at a bar or finding a friend who works at a closing fast food restaurant to let you in and play “We Like to Party! (The Vengabus)” (a.k.a., sadly, “the Six Flags song”) while you help stave off your wastedness. And yes, if you couldn’t tell from the aforementioned songs, Ansari’s musical curation is noticeable in just about every scene–whether in overtly establishing the theme of the episode (e.g. “Computer Love” by Kraftwerk opening “First Date” or “Only God Can Judge Me” by 2pac opening “Religion”) to more understated instances like the retro 60s song, “Più di Te” by Mina playing while Dev practices hand-rolling his pasta.
These songs culled lovingly from the past crop up time and time again as the season comes to its usual cliffhanger close, particularly, “Un Anno D’amore,” once again by Mina, which Francesca translates with sad seductiveness while dancing to it with Dev in the final episode. In point of fact, Master of None is essentially one long sad seduction, dangling before us all the possibility and permutations of love, while also reminding us that our motives in being with a person are often shrouded by what lies beneath the need. As Dev tells Arnold, “I don’t even know if it’s about her. I miss that feeling. When we were together doing all that stuff, I felt really connected to somebody. Now I just feel fucking alone.” And suddenly, you can definitely relate as you move on to binge watch the next show on Netflix by yourself.