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Master of None is about love and pasta and identity, but it’s also about hipsters.
Remember those guys? Now, we’d just refer to them as “people-who-live-in-Fort-Greene-and-drink small-batch-coffee-and-listen to-Father-John-Misty,” but, circa 2015, the word “hipster” brought to mind a very specific image (perhaps even one of these!) of someone who considered themselves to be “quirky,” “cool,” or “counterculture,” but would never actually own the “hipster” title. And there is perhaps no other show in the history of modern television that so accurately captures the plight of the hipster than Master of None, the popular sepia-toned Netflix dramedy created by sitcom lords Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The show’s larger themes creatively dealt with family, friendship, and modern relationships (much like Ansari’s book Modern Love). But, more often than not, the result was a dynamic look at New York City’s peak hipster era, a time when bearded brewmasters wore Warby Parkers and overalled goat cheese connoisseurs were planting the seeds of what would eventually become the millennial aesthetic.
When the series aired its two seasons in 2015 and 2017 on Netflix, it still felt like something of an event—Netflix had marquee shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black doing work for them, but in 2015, Master of None was still one of only a few legitimate original series on the streaming platform. Thanks in part to the liberties that come with building a streaming-exclusive, and also in part to their respective appreciations for what was happening in Brooklyn in the early 2010s, Yang and Ansari went a little wild aesthetically—in the best way. Master of None, whose soundtrack is almost exclusively retro funk music and which makes obvious references to vintage films throughout (the hipster way!), is presented as a series of vignettes with certain prevailing plotlines, but sometimes the main character’s arc (that of Ansari’s Dev, a 30-something struggling actor) is pushed to the side for the sake of a larger narrative, and the result is a more all-encompassing story of a city and its people than what you might get with a typical sitcom.
Master of None achieves this overarching look at NYC millennials (and millennials in general) by tackling overly topical subjects, to varying degrees of success. Similar to other NYC-set, millennial-starring shows like The Bold Type and Younger, Master of None deals with issues of that generation—everything from feminism and dating apps to religion and marriage, as well as immigration, sexuality, ageism and the gig economy. In Season 1, these topics are anything but subtle (in episodes with titles like “Parents,” “Ladies and Gentleman” and “Old People”). But there are also episodes dedicated to pure jubilee: “Nashville,” where Dev and his girlfriend Rachel (played by the talented Noël Wells), take a 24-hour trip to the Music City, is one of the most fun and saucy episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
Season 2 is really where the show hits its stride though, both from narrative and aesthetic perspectives, which is why the absence of a Season 3 will always be so frustrating. The show’s second season opens on a newly independent Dev (having recently ended things with Rachel, who fled to Tokyo for her own Eat Pray Love awakening) living in Italy and working as an apprentice in a mom-and-pop pasta shop (Ugh, how can I get this gig?!). The first episode, “The Thief,” is a riff on Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Ladri di biciclette, or The Bicycle Thief, as we like to call it in the U.S., and it’s a smart, delightfully funny romp through the Italian province Modena. Dev’s best friend Arnold (played by the gigantic, hovering Eric Wareheim, who hilariously offsets Dev’s petite build) later joins him abroad, and their adventures through the Italian countryside make for a delicious escape (especially now) filled with pasta, wine, and tiny cars.
But the rest of the season, back home in NYC, belongs to the women. “First Date” finds Dev on a series of Groundhog Day-like Tinder dates, each one wackier than the last. Then in “Thanksgiving,” Lena Waithe’s character Denise tells her coming-out story in a heartwarming episode about the challenges that come with revealing one’s true self to their family. The incredible Alessandra Mastronardi, who plays Dev’s complicated love interest Francesca, absolutely owns the rest of the season as she grapples with leaving her Italian home and assessing her almost decade-long relationship—and wears lots of chic trench coats in the process.
The most powerful episode of all, however, is Season 2’s “New York, I Love You,” which leaves Dev’s storyline behind for a fascinating walk through the city with various characters: a taxi driver, a deaf couple, a doorman. It’s a subtle and charming slice of TV, but, by dedicating an entire half-hour to seemingly ordinary people living their mundane lives, Master of None addresses its own privilege. The show may focus on the hipsters who frequent Baby’s All Right on the weekends and buy their coffee from inside a barbershop on weekdays, but New York is so much more than the newly gentrified bits of Brooklyn. While Dev and his friends are certainly no Upper-East-Siders, they live in impossibly big apartments, eat at expensive restaurants and generally enjoy the finer things in life. All of this fanfare makes for an absolutely gorgeous escapist show, but Master of None is at its smartest when it addresses heftier issues—including Dev’s own narrow perception of the world.
Ultimately, plans for a third season of this show went from murky to pretty much futile. After Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct in early 2018, it seemed unlikely that another season would ever occur, but then Netflix surprisingly wrote Ansari a blank check for a new season just a few months later. Ansari taped a stand-up special for the platform last year, but mum’s the word on any plans for future Master of None seasons. In a way, that’s not a bad thing, because these two seasons are nearly perfect on their own, and there’s a chance a new season just wouldn’t feel right for a number of reasons. Aziz Ansari plays a sleazy goofball on Parks and Recreation, and he’s a mindful but flawed celebrity in real life. Master of None finds him somewhere in the middle. Sometimes you’ll forget he’s playing a character at all (he cast his actual parents in the roles of Dev’s parents, after all), but that’s part of the beauty of this show. This is Aziz Ansari at his very best, his sharpest, and his most empathetic. We may never receive something of this artistic caliber from him again, so I’m still holding it close. Come for the pre-COVID nostalgia; stay for the compassionate millennial narratives—and the pasta. Don’t forget the pasta.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.
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