The best, most representative episode of the second season of Netflix’s Master of None is the black-and-white tribute to mid-20th century Italian cinema. No, wait: The best, most representative episode is the triptych of short stories about random New Yorkers in which Aziz Ansari barely appears. No, that’s not right: It’s the one that spans 20-plus years worth of Thanksgivings as Dev’s friend Denise gradually comes out to her family. Or maybe it’s the hour-long romance episode. Or…
Look, I can’t pick just one installment from the new season (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) as the best and/or most representative, because they’re all great, and because most of them are great in incredibly different ways, as if Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang were determined to prove they’d transcended the “jack of all trades, master of none” cliché that provides the show with its title.
The first season was already a delight, and most of the episodes brimmed over with the same curiosity, and versatility, that can be found throughout the new batch. But the breadth of season two is much wider, as is the depth. Ansari and Yang are trying so many more things, and succeeding far more often than you might expect even after that wonderful debut.
The new season picks up with Dev in the Italian city of Modena, studying pasta-making and palling around with a group of friends led by the quick-witted Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). The episode is filmed in black and white, features Dev riding around Modena on a bicycle, and even shows a pile of DVDs on his end table of the many classic Italian films to which Ansari and Yang are paying homage. But it also feels like an episode of Master of None in the way Dev interacts with his new pals — he loves saying the Italian filler word “allora,” and tries to translate various baller phrases from English — and in the way that even in this beautiful place, learning how to make his favorite kind of food, he still feels lonely and unsatisfied. It’s terrific.
But so is nearly everything that follows, including an extended Italian stay (now in color) featuring the arrival of Dev’s best friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim, who also directs several episodes, and whose size difference with Ansari remains a great and endearing sight gag); an episode that presents a series of Dev’s Tinder-style dates as if they were all occurring simultaneously, with very different results; and the introduction of Bobby Cannavale as an Anthony Bourdain-style TV food personality who becomes Dev’s boss after his return to America. There are a couple of episodes that hew to the season one “Dev is curious about a subject he never thought much about before” formula, and they’re fun, but the tone and style are more adventurous than before.
Ansari has really come into his own as both storyteller and actor. It takes enormous confidence to do an episode like the first date one and not fear the audience will get confused as Dev seems to be having the same conversation with multiple women, or to do an episode (directed by Yang) focusing almost entirely on brand new characters — a worldy-wise building doorman, a deaf bodega clerk, and a group of immigrant cabbies who share the same tiny apartment — and not fear the audience will be impatient to get back to the regulars. But both are so filled with joy and energy and empathy (even for the women whose dates with Dev don’t go so well) that it feels entirely natural and welcome that Ansari and Yang would try. And as Dev moves past last season’s breakup with Rachel (Noel Wells) and comes to realize he wants more than just friendship with Francesca, Ansari gets to display the kind of impressive dramatic acting chops you would never have expected from him before, including an extended, Michael Clayton-style unbroken take of Dev reacting to a bad piece of news. Even though Ansari worked with Yang and Master producer Michael Schur on Parks and Recreation, it seems he had to start writing for himself to show all the things he could do, and it’s very impressive.
The expansion of the show’s vision also means an expansion of running time, with many episodes going past the half-hour mark, and the penultimate one lasting close to an hour. But it never feels like bloat for its own sake. The Thanksgiving episode needs a few extra minutes to properly chart the progression of how Denise (Lena Waithe, who co-wrote it) and her mother (Angela Bassett) and aunt (Kym Whytley) get along, or don’t, as the older women come to terms with Denise being gay. And the 57-minute one doesn’t drag because the chemistry between Ansari and Mastronardi — who looks like Ansari and Yang plucked her out of one of the vintage films on Dev’s end table in Modena — is so strong, even as they grapple with the complications of her having a long-term boyfriend and a full life back in Italy. And just as season one deftly went back and forth between distinct standalone episodes and ones about the arc of Dev and Rachel’s couplehood, season two understands when the moment’s right to set the Francesca conundrum to the side so we can watch Dev and Arnold party across Manhattan with a never-ending supply of improvised songs, or see Dev spend a day at the office with his father Ramesh (played, again, by Ansari’s real father Shoukath, who makes up in charming enthusiasm what he lacks in formal training). Some moments are extremely funny, others more wistful, but all feel a part of this remarkable whole.
It’s been a year and a half since the first season debuted, and Ansari has suggested a third season might require a long gap — if not an indefinite hiatus like Louie, to which Master has become a most worthy successor — for him to gain enough new life experiences that additional episodes don’t feel like a rehash of what he and Yang have already done. It’s hard to blame him for wanting to take his time. Some shows are built to be churned out on a regular schedule, year after year; others require careful curation, and an audience patient enough to recognize that their wait will be rewarded by something distinct, surprising, and great.