It’s been four (long) years since Aziz Ansari’s brainchild, Master Of None, brought a sophomore season to Netflix. And it’s been a heck of a four years since then. Not only did you-know-what happen to slow down Hollywood productions (and everything else), but Ansari also retreated from the public eye following sexual assault allegations made against him in 2018. Those accusations did not result in charges, though they did prompt him to grow reflective during his insightful comedy special that went a long way to show that he’s gazing inward. During that tour, Ansari still appeared stunned at how distanced he had felt from the perspective of his accuser, although many felt that the accusations against him (which read, frankly, like a very bad date) seemed to prove that knee-jerk times are truly upon us, and people are eager to pick sides on every loaded issue.
Tellingly, Netflix declared back in 2019 that they were more than ready for more Master of None when Aziz was ready to make it happen, and people, it is happening. Granted, it’s a short season — with episodes titled “Moments Of Love, Chapter 3,” and so on, which range from 25-55 minutes apiece — but still, it’s here. As one might expect, Aziz’s experience as an accused man appears to have affected the lens with which he views human relationships; and one of the most awkward details about this situation is that his character, Dev, got stuck in a (relevant) tough situation in the Season 2 finale. Dev’s co-star-within-a-show (BFFs), Chef Jeff, was accused of on-the-job sexual harassment by many, many women. As the season wound down, the show indicated that BFFs had evaporated, and Dev would be left to pick up the pieces.
Little did anyone realize that Aziz would soon be, at least to a degree, regrouping to reformulate his own professional plan. And part of that plan (at least for Master of None) involves moving Dev to the background, so that his childhood best-friend character, Denise (Lena Waithe) can tell her story — this has actually briefly happened before, during the Season 2 “Thanksgiving” episode, and the results were marvelous — while Aziz continues in the director’s seat. He and Waithe co-wrote this new batch of episodes, and this season feels like an evolution. That’s true not only for the way that Aziz is writing about relationships, but also for the incredible depth in the way he shoots this season.
In short, he slows everything down, both figuratively and literally, and that allows for plenty of opportunities to lay these characters’ souls as bare as possible. In the case of Denise, her at-times impenetrable exterior means that, yeah, this intimate approach to what she’s going through is gonna get interesting. That’s especially the case because she’s now married (to Alicia, played by Naomi Ackie), and as a freshly successful author, she’s moved out of the New York City bustle to a roomy house upstate. This setting, on one hand, caters to the pandemic shooting mode of fewer people in one place, but also, it allows the show to strip away any side stories in a realm where there’s no pretense allowed. There’s no room for maneuvering away from difficult situations. No distractions exist for conversations that one might want to avoid. Vulnerability can shine through.
The process brings utterly unpretentious results (unlike what happened with the same getaway-to-a-remote-house approach for Malcolm and Marie), so that’s also a bonus. Also a good thing: Aziz is not entirely absent from being in front of the camera, but those moments are sparse. Perhaps he purposely meant to hang back to keep from drawing attention to his recent situation and distracting from this season’s mission. Yet even more so, he’s seizing this opportunity to further hone his eye behind the camera. The results are fascinating, particularly because Denise can be a tough egg to crack. Watching her layers emerge, although she never fully reveals herself at once, is fascinating. In fact, seeing what Denise chooses not to tell the world makes her all-the-more compelling, and her marriage is truly a modern love story, including the inevitable drama that arises. Meanwhile, Aziz knows how to point a damn camera, and he knows the value of restraint while allowing his subjects to simply do their thing without any rush to action.
Less humor can be expected this season, although it’s still present during more subtle moments. And Aziz appears to be done with having his characters move at a fast pace while going nowhere at all. Sure, that was part of the charm of the first seasons, but now, he sets up the long shot on his subjects and lets things unfold in a more organic way. Whether that means that he’s simply allowing Denise and Alicia to do break out in wordless dance for a few minutes while doing laundry, or he’s focusing on Denise slowly eating a hamburger alone in her car, all of these decisions to linger have a purpose.
It sounds weird, right? If I look at what I just wrote, the thought of Denise eating a burger doesn’t sound too compelling, but trust that there’s an undercurrent to the scene that communicates a lot about her inner state during the episode. Hey, remember how Mad Men received some criticism for lack of straight-up, plot-pushing action at times, too? It’s a little bit like that, and the followup to that burger scene delivers an emotional payoff.
What it all comes down to is this: Ansari is showing the world that he’s learned to listen. Whether or not that’s a result of his #MeToo accusations, well, no one can say. Perhaps he’s simply maturing and realizing that there are better stories to tell than Dev getting snowed in with an engaged Italian woman who’s leading him on, and so on, where that arc felt like a surface interaction. In contrast, there’s so much going on within these Season 3 characters. It’s cool, it’s heartbreaking at times, and it’s compelling as hell, all while Aziz breaks into new storytelling ground while Dev, during his limited onscreen time, does a heck of a lot of reflecting and communicates gratitude for his own process. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but there’s some Aziz Ansari in there.
If I had one complaint here, I’d only wish there were more episodes. We can cross our fingers for Season 4, though, while hoping that this show continues to transform. Master of None has always been an easy show to binge, and now it’s a rewarding one.
Netflix’s ‘Master of None’ will stream on Sunday, May 23.