Premiering today on Netflix, Season 2 of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None arrives at a time when the DMZ between film and TV is blurrier and more contentious than ever. It’s just May, and consider what a year it’s been already:
In April, the Academy Awards changed its rules to make multi-part—ahem, TV—documentaries like this year’s Best Documentary Feature winner O.J.: Made in America ineligible next year. This week, the Cannes Film Festival changed its rules to make Netflix films, which are not released in theaters, ineligible for next year’s competition.
Cinema ticket prices continue to inch up—even the matinees at ArcLight Hollywood are $17.75 per person—and movie night is only a premium experience if you like watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with crying babies and people texting while your 50-inch HD sits at home unused.
Most of the best-reviewed TV shows of the year so far are either based on films (FX’s Fargo, A&E’s Bates Motel, Netflix’s Dear White People) or look like films (AMC’s Planet Earth II, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, HBO’s The Leftovers).
Aside from all the TV shows that give you plenty of reasons to stay home tonight, home is increasingly your best bet for movies. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which premiered in theaters in February, is already available on VOD platforms like Amazon Video and FandangoNOW, and Netflix is spending a chunk of its $6 billion-a-year programming budget on popcorn films like Will Smith’s Bright ($90 million) and Brad Pitt’s War Machine ($60 million).
Master of None is unquestionably TV—it’s on Netflix, has half-hour episodes and features at least one TV star—but there’s more of a filmmaker’s storytelling sensibility in the series than just about anything else on TV right now. Season 1, which premiered in late 2015, is largely built around thematic episodes—dating, immigrant parents, etc.—that are somewhat serialized but that stand alone well as short films with self-contained stories. That structure allows room for Ansari’s Dev Shah to meander through family, work, dating and a circle of likable friends and address issues in insightful ways.
Season 2 follows the same approach and structure as Season 1, but the new batch of episodes play even more as short films. The first, “The Thief,” directed by Ansari, finds Dev training as a pasta chef in Modena, Italy. It’s warm and charming with the comedic energy and romantic possibility of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and with many visual and narrative nods to Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. The episode is beautifully structured, stunningly shot, elegantly acted and patiently directed. It’s a solid feature film in every respect other than its 30-minute runtime.
A later episode called “Thanksgiving” finds childhood friends Dev and Denise (Lena Waithe, who cowrote the episode with Ansari) navigating race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation through their years of spending Thanksgiving Day together. It has incisive and original things to say about individual identity and packs a master’s thesis of sociology into a half-hour episode without a hint of proselytizing or victimization.
Still, I find the series frustratingly uneven. “The Thief” and “Thanksgiving” should be on every best-episodes-of-the-year list, but about one third of the episodes across both seasons are not particularly good. Buddy episodes like “Hot Ticket” from Season 1 and “Le Nozze” from Season 2 are flat and listless with forced dorkishness playing more as affect than in-jokes, and the relationship story in Season 1 never quite clicked for me.
The new season, though, is more consistent, more resonant and especially more filmic in its storytelling. Ansari and Yang have rebirthed Dev as a lonely romantic and a restless adventurer. There’s a greater sense of possibility and uncertainty, and I’m more hopeful and more curious now about what the future holds for Dev than I was at the end of the first season.
And that’s usually how it goes. Michael Schur, who worked with Ansari on Parks and Recreation and is an executive producer on Master of None, told me last year that the second and third seasons of a show are usually a fan’s favorites. “You hit this point where you’re still getting new shades of the characters, but you know who they are,” he said.
An under-attributed reason TV is eclipsing the movie-theater experience is that the living room is the sweet spot where your own unguarded vulnerability and growing familiarity with a character through episodes and seasons can click in meaningful, emotional ways. Season 2 of Master of None, and especially the waning episodes, gets there.