Empathy. It’s a badge that “Master of None” wears with pride throughout its second season.
While the show’s first run has been continually lauded for its keen ability to dissect the simultaneously absurd and depressing tropes of modern millennial life, it also had a tendency to adhere to a rather stale thematic formula for our protagonist, Dev (Aziz Ansari, “Parks and Recreation”), to convey his malaise and misgivings about his professional, familial and romantic future. That isn’t to say that the tried-and-true sitcom-esque format that co-creators Alan Yang and Ansari tried to employ throughout the first season was objectively bad — far from it, really.
For what the season was — at its simplest form, a method of living vicariously through a young man’s path toward self-discovery and purpose — the format found itself at home. But for the considerably bolder direction that Ansari and Yang sought to further move Dev’s story in, it was only fitting that the show’s second iteration graduated to something grander. Hell, season two’s opener essentially fashions itself as a modern parody of early-20th century Italian film “Bicycle Thieves” — black and white filmography and all.
Auteur-ish creative liberties aside, the tone the program aims to set becomes obvious fairly early-on. While the program’s first season covered the ingrained anxieties that come with the journey towards (in the very least, the concept of) becoming an “adult,” its second season makes it a point to highlight the very real social and mental anguish of modern-day adulthood rarely explored in television. The Dev Shah of season one is a confused actor who doesn’t really know what he wants out of his life, but the Dev Shah of season two is thrust with very real, difficult decisions and compromises he has to make to stay on the long-term path he finally manages to start forging for himself. What Dev wants and what Dev needs are rarely the same thing, and these quandaries fashion themselves a pointed illustration of what adulthood in today’s day and age can actually look like. There are laughs, there are jokes — but there are also very real moments of mental grief that can speak to most viewers’ everyday experiences as adults, regardless of creed or color.
These themes are explored in a variety of directions throughout the season — and the multi-faceted cast Ansari and Yang employ to illustrate these themes manages to instill an overarching sense of empathy that permeates throughout the program as well. In “New York, I Love You,” a vignette of storylines involving a deaf biracial couple, a group of African taxi drivers and an overworked Manhattan high rise doorman intersect in a way that sees audiences experience familiar emotions from perspectives they’re rarely afforded exposure to. In the poignant “Thanksgiving,” Denise (Lena Waithe, “Transparent”), a childhood friend of Dev’s, and her mother are shown to slowly come to terms with each other’s differences in personality and identity over the course of a decade of Thanksgiving dinners. Both episodes are the strongest exercise in Ansari and Yang’s creative liberties, and considering the stories they told (and the audience takeaways), they make for gems that represent what much of the rest of the season is all about.
All in all, “Master of None” provides no antidote for these very real modern conundrums. You’d be mistaken in thinking that was its purpose, though. The program shows that such dilemmas are genuine and real, and happen to families of color, to young adults, to geriatrics, to gay and straight individuals alike. The program provides no real resolution for its overarching storyline, but its conclusion functions as an exercise in audacity — and it pays off. Ansari and Yang show no hesitance in posing difficult questions in every corner of the show, but it doesn’t seem as if they’re attempting to provide answers. If anything, “Master of None” shows us that coming to an answer may not nearly be as important as dwelling on the question.