Dev Shah has a quality that many other sitcom protagonists lack: an interest in other people. Ansari, often praised for his empathy, has imbued his semi-autobiographical character with this same quality, and in no episode has that been more apparent than “Nashville.”
In “Nashville,” Dev takes Rachel (Noël Wells) on a one-night vacation to the eponymous Southern city. He makes a lot of careless errors, like forgetting where Rachel is from (Texas, not Florida), learning that she’s a vegetarian at a barbecue restaurant, and causing them to miss their flight home—and, as a result, Rachel’s niece’s recital—when he insists that they stop to buy extra bottles of barbecue sauce on their way to the airport. But Dev feels bad about his mistakes, not just in some sort of hastily-done third-act resolution in which he realizes he’s been selfish, but throughout the episode.
Television shows are already, by definition, solipsistic universes in which the actions and feelings of one person matter more than those of anyone else in the show or, for that matter, on the planet. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how fiction works. And the world of Master of None does, indeed, revolve around Dev. But the show resists this natural focus on its lead by allowing Dev to be more interested in the supporting characters than we’re used to seeing.
One example from “Nashville” makes a particular impression. Rachel is telling Dev about how she dreams of one day quitting her job, changing her hair, and moving to Tokyo and Dev cocks his head and asks, “Why Tokyo?” And then he listens. More so than its humor, those moments are what make “Nashville” a lovely bit of television. The episode is never uproariously funny, which makes it a letdown coming off of “The Other Man,” but it’s still pleasant.
That makes it hard to grade “Nashville” as a comedy so, instead, let’s review the central talking point of Master of None’s back half: the Rachel-Dev relationship, which makes its first proper appearance here.
There’s no getting around the chemistry that Ansari and Wells share. It’s real, it’s palpable, it’s there. But Master of None—in this episode, at least—uses an inordinate amount of witty repartee between Dev and Rachel to establish that chemistry, instead of letting non-verbal moments do the trick. As a result, the show feels anxious to prove that the couple works together instead of letting us observe their self-evident, natural fit for each other. Between them, Dev and Rachel maintain three different threads of recurring jokes—about octopi, ghosts and the appropriate term for “plus-sized”—which they bring back into their running conversation at just the right moments. It’s cute, yes, but it’s too on the nose, and it demands further suspension of disbelief when their chemistry would be believable even without the writing.
It’s telling that the best moments of the episode come when it takes a break from words altogether. Watching Dev and Rachel awkwardly honky tonk while laughing at themselves says more about their emerging relationship than a line of dialogue ever could. And later, the episode eschews dialogue in an even more powerful way: In lieu of having sex, Dev and Rachel decide to turn in for the night. Dev shuts off the light, and the two, at first, lie on their backs. Rachel glances over at Dev, smiles, and then the two turn toward each other, Dev’s eyes lighting up sweetly at her gesture.
And then we’re right back to the running inside jokes.
It’s not that “Nashville” is a bad episode of Master of None. As a half-hour excerpt from a movie, it would be pretty terrific. But as an episode, it’s enjoyable and smart, yes, but not particularly memorable. Perhaps that speaks to the way in which a pre-ordained Netflix format can shape the production of shows like these: When the audience is going to binge watch all ten episodes anyway, it gives the writers license to spend an entire episode treading water and establishing a relationship. That makes for smooth viewing, but not necessarily for a great episodic show. “Nashville” isn’t Master of None at its best but, then again, it doesn’t have to be.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.