What a special feeling when you bond with a TV show. And I’m not talking small returns like getting your weekly dose of laughs or escapism. I mean the awe-inspiring, mind-bending, occasionally even cathartic kind. To be honest, it’s only happened a handful of times in my life.
There was Twin Peaks, which transported prep school squares like me to a dark, twisted world of freaks and fantasy. Dreams of Audrey, nightmares about Bob… Nervous about season three? Just a little. Years later, The Office kickstarted a mockumentary craze, putting the soul in sit-com while making my 9-to-5 drudgery in telesales infinitely more bearable.
True Detective (season one) revolutionised the murder mystery, a mainstream success with cult credentials and a world of references to fixate upon. Then there was the cinematography. I love a good tracking shot and that one was sublime.
And let’s not forget childhood classics such as Quantum Leap, which allowed us 90’s kids to slip into someone else's shoes and time travel with Sam far beyond history class.
Watching Master of None last week, I got a similar feeling. This is not business as usual, I thought. Writer Vera Chok put it well in The Good Immigrant, a great collection of short stories about what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today.
“[It is] a game changer,” she wrote, looking back on season one. “How many times in media have you seen an Asian male have a sexual life? Episode one opens with Aziz Ansari’s character in the throes of sex. His sexual relationships are depicted as normally as a white male’s. And he has an Asian friend, played by Kelvin Yu, who is held up as a hottie in the series. This is television history.”
The first season won plaudits for tackling issues such as the generation gap in immigrant families and the repressive nature of religion. It was a real joy to see a diverse cast portraying more rounded characters, crushing caricatures and smashing stereotypes.
Comedian Ansari, co-writer Alan Wang and their collaborators could quite easily have laid out another ten episodes of NYC dating hilarity and food porn (with a side order of identity crisis) for the Netflix bingers. But they didn’t. They went deeper.
For instance, the second season kicks off with black and white episode, paying tribute to The Bicycle Thieves and the golden age of Italian cinema. It’s almost like a reverie, far removed from the hyper-speed and hyper-consumption of city life. There are movie references aplenty, in fact.
If you want to raise the bar, having a skilful team on board certainly helps (including ‘Formation’ video director Melina Matsoukas and guest stars such as Angela Bassett and Bobby Cannavale). But the core strength of Master of None is the writing.
Ansari says that season one is about not knowing what you want. Season two is about wanting what you can’t have. Everything is so keenly observed (and ingeniously executed). The show is soaked in reality. Perhaps that is the kind of entertainment we really need in this post-truth world where fact is fiction and fiction becomes fact.
For example, Ansari actually did head to Moderna to learn Italian and how to make pasta. Sidekick and real-life bro Eric Wareheim did go through a horrific break up with a long-term partner just like his character Arnold, who freaks out at his ex's wedding in episode two. Alessandra Mastronardi, who plays Francesca, does have a weird obsession with pharmacies. And Denise’s awkward exchanges over several Thanksgiving dinners as she struggles to come out to her mother are inspired by actor Lena Waithe’s own experiences.
Music is another important facet of this show and the team applies a similar level of rigour and ambition in this area. The soundtrack takes in everything from 60’s Italian pop star Mina and Burundi artist Canco Hamisi, to Pino D’Angio’s ‘Okay Okay’ Italo disco, NYC Loft classics such as Marta Acuna’s ‘Dance Dance Dance’ and 90’s hip hop crew Digable Planets. Pitchfork has compiled a playlist of all the music here.
Each track perfectly complements the scene and mood and heightens your enjoyment regardless of your muso credentials. It’s worth reading this interview with music supervisor and DJ Zach Cowie, who explains how the goal was to create their own musical universe. The show goes deeper than some specialist music stations, and remember, this is a sitcom.
I’ll try not to spoil it for you but six scenes stick in the mind…
1. Young Dev has his first rasher of bacon
This isn't the first time the creators have used humour to show the loosening grip of religion on younger generations of immigrant families. Dev’s family is Muslim but he appears clueless about what that means. Maybe he doesn’t care. There is certainly a whiff of defiance in the air. When his friend’s mother gives him bacon and his own mother tries to intervene on the phone, young Dev does what he has to do. And his face says it all. Tupac’s ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ is the perfect accompaniment.
2. Samuel and friends jump on the Vengabus
It takes real confidence to put aside your main storylines – Dev and Francesca and Dev’s wavering career – to explore the lives of others. In episode six we meet a host of characters, from the hardworking hotel concierge to the immigrant cab driver putting up with inane chat about grain bowls and passengers spoiling films. The structure reminds me of Paris Je T’Aime with its vignettes about people who occasionally cross paths. Jim Jarmusch’s cabbie-ficused Night on Earth could be another reference point. So many great scenes to choose from but seeing Samuel and his friends party to dance group the Venga Boys after being turned away from a club on their big night out, really brought a smile to my face.
3. Denise invites her girlfriend to Thanksgiving
This episode is wonderful in every way, from the structure to the performances. As director Matsoukas has mentioned, how often do you see a black woman’s coming-out story told in this way? It’s important. Over five separate Thanksgiving dinners we see Denise build up the courage to truly be herself at home, not least when she invites girlfriend Michelle to the family dinner table. Her mother, played by Angela Bassett, is fearful and struggles to accept it: “It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world, now you want to add something else to that?” Dev is one of Denise’s earliest confidants and wrings maximum humour from every awkward moment. But it’s the interplay between Bassett and on-screen sister Joyce (Kim Whitley) that will have you creasing up.
4. Dev takes the long cab ride home
In episode five sparks really begin to fly between Dev and his Italian friend Francesca (who works in the pasta shop where Dev took his lessons). Having been serenaded by John Legend at Chef Jeff’s dinner party (a sensuous cover of Jacko’s ‘I Can't Help It’) and plied with wine, the mood is suitably amorous and you feel it’s Dev’s chance to make a move in the cab. But Francesca slips out offering nothing more than a warm embrace and a flirty text. We’ve all been there. What follows is a three-minute fixed shot of a solemn Dev sitting alone in the back as Soft Cell’s ‘Wave Hello, Say Goodbye’ cuts to the core of his pain. Perhaps it’s the first time Dev realises that what wants so badly he might never have. It’s the impossible dream and it makes compelling television.
5. Maya asks Barry for a little extra lovin'
Another great scene from episode six features store assistant Maya, who is deaf. Having shared her concerns about her flagging sex life to a friend, she ignores the advice given – to choose the right moment to talk about it – instead confronting partner Barry in a homeware store. The conversation, conducted in sign language, is explicit and laugh-a-minute. I doubt there’s been a scene where a vagina has been discussed in such depth. And why not? It’s not like these conversations don't happen in real life. Deaf people have needs to, you know.
6. Francesca rips out Dev’s heart
Dev and Francesca really enjoy each other’s company. They clearly have chemistry. Those lingering glances at one another speak volumes. The more time they spend together in NYC the closer they become. But Francesca in engaged to be married to her long-term partner Pino, the only man she has even been with. This small-town girl has convinced herself she has no other life beyond Modena but Francesca's eyes have been opened on this trip and she can't help but flirt with possibility. The “will they, won’t they?” question keeps viewers hooked right till the end. Episode nine is a meaty affair, almost twice the length of others, as the season reaches its denouement. What I love about this scene is how it momentarily breaks the tension and stops their relationship from becoming a schlocky and syrupy affair. It’s brilliantly done and very funny. Unless you’ve ever fallen hard for someone that’s taken…