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REVIEW:âMaster of Noneâ, and the beauty of fleetingness

Master of None gazes through the lens of its creator, comedian Aziz Ansari, and is informed by his experiences as a second-generation Indian-American. In one episode, he shifts perspectives — from an African-American doorman, to a deaf-mute woman, to a Rwandan immigrant cab driver. In another, much-lauded episode he co-writes with co-star Lena Waithe, we get a glimpse of what it’s like growing up as a lesbian minority through a series of Thanksgiving dinners.

REVIEW:‘Master of None’, and the beauty of fleetingness

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2017 - 4:00pm

When Aziz Ansari’s Dev Shah started falling in love with his friend, Francesca, in Season 2 of Netflix’s Master of None, my eyes instinctively rolled. Here we go again, I thought. It’s Cheers’ Sam and Diane, Friends’ Rachel and Ross, and The Office’s Jim and Pam all over again. I loved those will-they-or-won’t-they love stories and ate them all up when I was younger, but replicating them now seemed dubious. They are mementos from more innocent times when people still watched cable TV and characters toeing the line between romance and friendship felt fresh and lifelike. There was no social media yet to mock your earnest feelings and you could throw yourself into these stories freely and carelessly. Series like Cheers, Friends and The Office have long cornered the market on unspoken romances, which by now is the TV equivalent of soft drinks — it’s kind of stupid and pointless to introduce a new brand. Cheers caught lightning in a bottle in the ’80s with Sam and Diane. Friends giving it a Gen-X update with Rachel and Ross weirdly felt necessary at the time. And The Office’s mumblecore realism made Jim and Pam even more relatable than their predecessors. What could Master of None possibly show us that we’ve never seen before?

Cut to: Francesca saying goodbye to Dev in their Uber ride as Soft Cell’s new wave hugot classic Say Hello, Wave Goodbye plays in the background. The camera locks in on Dev, alone in the car, squirming in wordless regret and yearning. He clearly wants to follow Francesca to her hotel room. But he knows he shouldn’t. She’s engaged and she has a planned life ahead of her in another country. But there’s undeniable chemistry between them, a spark he knows is so rare that letting it go feels criminal. The camera lingers on Dev for so long that you find yourself mining your own history to fill in the blank space that grows wider with every second. It’s a great scene and it’s where Master of None proudly announces that, no, this isn’t new — it’s just a strong distillation of everything we’ve loved. Peak rom-com in powder form.

Make no mistake, though: Master of None is far from basic. The series still gazes through the lens of its creator, comedian Aziz Ansari, and is informed by his experiences as a second-generation Indian-American. He expands his observations in the second season to include Islam, particularly in an episode that refreshingly deals with the religion within a family context, almost rendering its oft-covered outside reputation as a mere footnote. In one episode, he shifts perspectives — from an African-American doorman, to a deaf-mute woman, to a Rwandan immigrant cab driver. In another, much-lauded episode he co-writes with co-star Lena Waithe, we get a glimpse of what it’s like growing up as a lesbian minority through a series of Thanksgiving dinners.

Tried and Tested Formula?

But it’s the clichéd will-they-or-won’t-they romance that gets the most screen time. The cynical reading here is that Ansari is seeking the most views in a post-TV environment that’s getting more crowded every month. What’s a better way of standing out from the streaming clutter than dusting off a tried and tested formula? A more open-minded view would be that Ansari wants to give Indian-American kids something he never had: a generational love story with an Indian-American male lead in place of John Cusack or Zach Braff. But watch the romance with your own running commentary on mute and everything scans as agenda-free. It really does seem like he genuinely loves the Jim-and-Pam trope and wanted to create the ultimate homage. Season 2 of Master of None is his Kill Bill for the When Harry Met Sally genre.

You can see this love splattered all over the episodes: in the cinematic opening credits, the aerial night shots of New York City, the way the camera infatuatedly fixes on Alessandra Mastronardi, the actress who plays Francesca. In the penultimate episode, “Amarsi Un Po,” the camera follows her around like Dev as she marvels at random items at a drug store in perfect wide-eyed Manic Pixie Dream Girl form. And she is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I think Ansari is aware of this, too, and he doesn’t care. The Francesca episodes have a throwback pre-Internet, pre-shaming feel to them, much like the character herself — an eternally-smiling European radiating with Old World purity. Mid-century Italian lounge music hovers over the budding romance along with ’70s soul and disco; it’s as if Ansari wants to take us back to a time before think pieces ruined guilty pleasures forever.

What happens when a showrunner silences his inner Internet conscience? His scenes, though based on genre, ring true. He hits the emotional notes effortlessly and you, the cynical viewer contaminated by social media toxicity, remember what it felt like the first time you saw these moments played out on screen. You see the sleepovers and the late-night dancing a mile away but feel their magic anyway. The confessions don’t feel written; they just sound like sighs held out for too long. Master of None, at times, feels like a confident cover of a time-worn standard: you wince at the opening notes but eventually admire the virtuosity.

A curious Pivot?

It’s a curious pivot, considering the first season’s ultimate thesis: that romantic love doesn’t last. Ansari makes the same point in his 2015 book Modern Romance, where he distinguishes romantic love from “companionate love” — the kind that persists when all the passion and excitement in a relationship are gone, making way for more adult concepts such as responsibility and genuine concern. Maybe we’ll see that in Season 3, but for now, Ansari doubles down on romantic love after exposing it as inevitably doomed and possibly fake.

It does seem like he’s contradicting himself, but it’s not so much a cop-out as it is an accurate simulation of that feeling we think is love, a feeling that is both depressing and addictive. Ansari has stared at the void, said his piece, and now he’s asking us to ride a time machine to that recklessly thrilling startup phase of any relationship, where everything feels possible and love feels eternal. He acknowledges that love is fleeting, so now he’s taking us deep down the beauty of that fleetingness. It’s a feeling all of us, including showrunners, can’t help but chase.

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Tweet the author @colonialmental.

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