Master of None seemed like—at least, to me—the perfect show. A glimmering, nearly Nora Ephron-Esque portrait of New York, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series swaggered into the mainstream with ease. The comedy was as smooth as the handmade carbonara Ansari’s Dev twirls in the penultimate episode of Season 1. The romances, the friendships as tender as warm steak, thick and ready to shred apart and share. Food was ladeled (never simply plopped) into every episode, and so were masterful discussions on race, sexuality, love, and family.
The show was incredible, but in a way where you could always expect more from the next episode and the next season. Season 1 featured a blissful episode, “Mornings” tracking Dev’s relationship over a year in mornings. Season 2, perhaps a perfect season of television, took him to Italy, and ventured into side stories unrelated to Dev entirely. Both have a perfect 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Master of None won Emmys, a Golden Globe. So, naturally, Season 3, which releases on May 23, should be just as promising. Right?
No. It’s wrong to glaze over the allegations made against Ansari since then. Not only because we need to hold Ansari accountable, but also because this show—and for that matter, Ansari’s book and stand-up—is rooted in love, relationships, and sex. In 2018, Babe.net’s Katie Way published one woman’s recounting of a horrible, violating night spent with Ansari.
“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” Grace, speaking under a pseudonym, told Babe.net. “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault. And that’s why I confronted so many of my friends and listened to what they had to say, because I wanted validation that it was actually bad.”
Amidst the whole “art vs. artist” debacle, Ansari stands as one of those creators whose art is him. Art equals artist, nearly, when it comes to Master of None. So, if Dev Shah were to pull the same type of harassment Ansari’s accused of, would we, as an audience, forgive him? I suppose we might be expected to sympathize with him, as we so often do when we watch the series.
In one Season 1 episode, Dev doesn’t understand why his girlfriend’s mad at him for a guy that made her feel uncomfortable. He kind of apologizes. But he doesn’t really get it, and it’s an awkward moment for women in the audience. I know I wouldn’t forgive him. Still, the show moves onward and upward, forgetting his childlike behavior.
As a dedicated Master of None fan, I set out to analyze the nuances of the situation at hand as Season 3 rolls onto Netflix. Is it fair to still have an appetite for Master of None like we used to? Or, after re-analyzing moments like the one noted above, has the show spoiled?
“Master of None is a show about fucking and drinking and eating pork all the time,” Ansari explained in his 2017 Vulture profile. The series settled the age-old debate between food versus sex: why not both? The show feels like an aphrodisiac. Dev treats good sex like he treats good food, pining after it, finding it in soothing corners of New York where he least expects.
Before his series, Ansari shaped a solid narrative around himself and his love for food. Especially noting his passion for pasta, he gave an interview to Bon Appétit, was the first guest in Daniel Kellison’s three-part “Dinner with Daniel” series for Grantland, and even toured Tokyo for GQ through eats with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Momofuku’s David Chang. As appetizing as all of this sounds, and as much as it surely enriched the scrumptious quality of Master of None (especially Season 2), Ansari’s hunger feels overtly masculine, an unwelcoming presence that’s become quite the trend in the food industry.
For his meal with Kellison, which was in 2012, Ansari chose the restaurant: Mario Batali’s Los Angeles-based Osteria Mozza. Batali’s outposts are still popular today, even after several sexual misconduct allegations were raised against him in 2017. It’s near-impossible to blame anyone for dining at Batali’s restaurants, a massive Italian empire featuring Eataly and other huge spots, before the allegations hit the mainstream. This unfortunate meal was, most likely, just a coincidence. I’ve dined at Eataly before, like many others have, unaware of Batali’s personal wrath.
But as I read profile upon profile of Ansari, peeling through interviews and news write-ups like they were cloves of garlic, I did start to notice a trend. Many of Ansari’s influences, his idols and his mentors, were folks piling up similar allegations. “Aziz Ansari Gets His Louie,” wrote Vulture about the first trailer for Master of None, referencing Louis C.K.’s similar comedy series. In the Grantland interview, Ansari noted his dream director would be Woody Allen. Ansari continually idolizes R. Kelly. Even David Chang, who did the GQ Tokyo tour with Ansari, was recently exposed for toxic hostility against staffers in his kitchens.
We need not blame Ansari for the behavior of these men, nor for aligning himself with their work before huge allegations hit the mainstream. But this tendency to idolize overly-masculine figures is still worth noting. Perhaps it’s not a mere coincidence Ansari’s befriended and revered a handful of troubling men. Something was appealing about their sense of humor; the way they talk about lust, women, sex; the way they feed their appetite—these factors add up.
During the #MeToo movement, Helen Rosner captured the relationship between food and lust in her New Yorker piece, “Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men.” She wrote about the relationship between “overt sensuality” and the abuse perpetrated by men of the food industry (and, for that matter, the rest of the world).
“Hunger and lust are twin evolutionary urges, and Batali is hardly the first to find them intertwined,” Rosner wrote. “Both offer intensely intimate, intensely physical rewards. Both are classically disdained—the two pleasures, according to Plato, that a true philosopher should forsake. But, even if food and sex partner well, they do not occupy the same plane of experience. Feeding one’s hunger is a mortal need; acting on one’s sexual impulses is a choice.”
It ties back into Master of None, and the allegations made against Ansari. There’s a certain masculine hunger that Ansari perpetuates in the first two seasons of Master of None. Then again, Master of None does have a nuanced discussion of food and appetite, especially in Season 2’s “Religion,” in which Dev unpacks his relationship to pork with his Muslim family. And the food always looks delightful (Who could forget all the pasta making?) Upon initial watch, it’s nearly impossible to resist the alluring smells and tastes Master of None teases. But that connection between food and lust remains when, as Rosner pointed out, it shouldn’t.
“It’s worth noting that appetites like Batali’s are, for the most part, not permitted to women; neither are bodies like his, with their evidence of hungers fulfilled.” The same is true for Master of None: Dev’s Season 1 girlfriend is quietly shamed for being a vegetarian. The couple goes so far as to make a joke about following larger people around so they can find the best restaurants, implying that they know where to find the best food.
With the third season, Master of None: Moments in Love set to focus on the romance between Denise (Lena Waithe), Dev’s close friend, and her partner (Naomi Ackie), the show may be making improvements. Season 2’s “Thanksgiving,” focusing on Denise coming out to her family, was undoubtedly the best episode of the series as a whole. Still, Ansari sits at the helm as writer/director and creator of Master of None, tainting the show’s portrayals of food and sex.
There was always meant to be a pause between the second and third season of Master of None. In the same 2017 Vulture profile, Ansari mentioned wanting to take a “looonng break” before creating more, so that he could go off and live his life to inspire more episodes of the series. Then came the Babe.net allegations, which arose around half a year after Season 2 hit Netflix, sending Ansari into hiding in London. In large part, he’s since fallen off the pop culture map, returning only for his 2019 Netflix special Aziz Ansari: Right Now, where he briefly addressed the allegations.
From what I can tell, Ansari has barely apologized for the actions mentioned in the Babe.net story. His statement was brief, scrawled in a tone that was neither apologetic nor unapologetic. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” Ansari said. “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said. I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.” Then, he started addressing the allegations in his stand-up, mentioning how “scared,” “humiliated,” and “embarrassed” he felt.
“And ultimately,” Ansari remarks in the Netflix special, “I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.”
Boom. Like a rock, this statement sunk to the bottom of my stomach. Through all of the speculation on the Babe.net story (Was it harassment? Or was it just a bad date?), these puny flecks of an apology crushed my hopes that Ansari could, possibly, shape up. Instead of taking any responsibility for his actions, Ansari has gone the “I’m Sorry You Feel This Way” route, completely undermining his so-called continued support of the #MeToo movement.
Babe.net has since gone defunct, a result that was partially thanks to the mishandling of the Ansari story. Instead of treating it like news, the website tossed it into the flaming circles of discourse as if it were a token of gossip. And as such, the allegations haven’t really been taken seriously. They are slimmer than those noted above (like Batali, Louis C.K., and R. Kelly), but allegations to consider nonetheless.
They’re noteworthy too because they shift the narrative around Ansari, who has been branding himself as a sort of romance academic since the release of Master of None’s first season. He’s not an expert on love and modern dating, but that’s the point. One follows his stand-up, watches his TV show about dating, and reads his book Modern Romance because he’s just like us. His book about online dating is funny—funny, because before writing it, he had never online dated. To watch Master of None is to fall in love as Aziz Ansari does, to relate to his bad dates, to feel the epic highs and lows of sex and love. So, to learn his cruel, horrible behaviors relating to the subject? The mat has been ripped out from under us.
In Season 2, Ansari devotes an entire episode to online dating. He swipes, and swipes, and swipes his way into several dates, most of them bad, some of them horrible, and only one of them actually decent. Ansari is never portrayed as the one spoiling the date. He is funny. He rolls with the punches. But the ladies do coke in the bathroom, they lie to him, and they reject him. We are forced to empathize with Dev, when in reality, it’s more often men who make women uncomfortable on dates. Ansari himself gave Babe.net’s Grace the “worst night” of her life.
But no: Ansari is a feminist. He’s a “woke bae,” according to Refinery29. He explained his feminism through a wage gap metaphor between Beyoncé and Jay-Z. He wore a “Time’s Up” pin as he strolled the red carpet of the Golden Globes. He even wrote a Batali-esque character into Master of None, Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale), to highlight the #MeToo movement in the food and media industries. He’s shelled himself into this brand of man, almost like Joss Whedon, that respects women when he clearly doesn’t. Again — after peeling through profiles and Q&A’s with Ansari, it’s clear that most of his role models and friends are not just men, but abusive men at that. His feminism reads as performative.
The situation surely is nuanced. There is no right or wrong, nor is there a clear answer as to whether or not Season 3 should be disregarded after the allegations. I certainly can’t watch the first two seasons of Master of None through the same rose-colored glasses I once sported. These toxic ideas—the allegations, the masculine hunger for sex and love, the faux-feminism—hover over Master of None like a dark cloud. A cancellation of the once-fantastic series would not be grounds to celebrate, but perhaps it would have been the right thing for Netflix to do.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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