Even TV Is Struggling to Connect

Two new shows, Amazon’s Solos and Netflix’s Master of None, feature characters desperate for human warmth.

stills from 'Solos' and 'Master of None'
The Atlantic / Amazon Studios / Netflix

A few unspoken subjects hang over the third season of Netflix’s Master of None, as inescapable as air. One is the sidelining of Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, for reasons that I can only assume relate to Ansari’s desire to be less conspicuous in recent years. Another is the fact that the series, set in New York City and the vague hinterland of “upstate,” was filmed in the U.K., a feint that provoked a sense of inauthenticity I couldn’t shake. The most crucial invisible element, though, is the reality of the past year. Denise (Lena Waithe) and her wife, Alicia (Naomi Ackie), live on a blissfully coronavirus-free plane, and yet the pandemic inflects everything: the characters’ isolation, their feelings of entrapment, the tedious repetition of their routines, the prominence of health-care workers. This third season is presented as a spin-off and subtitled Moments in Love, but its most dominant feeling is alienation. Ansari, who directed all five episodes and co-wrote them with Waithe, shifts the show’s aspect ratio to tighten its frame, as if the walls around his characters are closing in.

The series feels intriguingly defined by current events, and yet similarly handicapped by them. The same goes for another recent release, Amazon’s Solos, an ensemble series of monologues on the theme of loneliness that, rather than resonating in this particular time, feel stiff and flat. Moments in Love, for its part, has been billed as an exploration of a marriage; in practice, though, it’s a fascinating, achingly bleak study of an anti-marriage, a relationship so worn or corrupted that it feels more isolating than being alone does. Other real-world resonances abound in the show: the demise of Waithe’s own marriage, the critical hammerings she and Ansari have both received of late for very different reasons, the evolving meaning and privilege of home. I watched the series craving moments of genuine connection, but they rarely came. The most profound is between Alicia and Cordelia (Cordelia Blair), a fertility nurse in the fourth episode who scans Alicia’s ovaries, holds her hand when she cries, compliments her socks, tells her she can get through one more cycle of ovulation-stimulating drugs, and eventually calls to give her news that will change her life.

That episode of Moments in Love feels so potent for a reason. In previous episodes, Waithe’s Denise haunts every room she’s in like a gloomy specter, detaching herself from her wife and her art (she’s writing a follow-up to her smash first novel) with weed and a kind of practiced apathy. Ansari’s direction is impressionistic and deliberately keeps viewers at arm’s length. Rather than understanding these characters, or getting a sense (as my colleague Hannah Giorgis wrote) of what made them fall in love in the first place, what we see are glimpses of a two-dimensional life that’s been as carefully arranged as a painting. Their upstate pastoral existence includes every picturesque enhancement: chickens, doves, trailing houseplants, a mustard-velvet couch, a fireplace, a striking collection of Black art on the walls. And yet the people within it feel as passive and unenchanted by each other as strangers at the post office.

In the fourth episode, though, Ansari drops the distancing effect to allow the audience into Alicia’s mission to have a baby by herself. When a doctor explains to her that a woman’s fertility drops precipitously after 37, the camera finally puts her face in tight focus. We see her eyes dart from side to side and her forehead furrow as she processes the news that insurance companies don’t have a diagnosis code for queer people trying to conceive babies on their own. We see her mounting panic as she stares at the needle she’s supposed to insert into her stomach. We watch her weep from exhaustion and, still groggy after an anesthetic, ask the doctor how many eggs she managed to extract. We see her fail and fight and fall apart. The episode is devastatingly emotive and brutally accurate. (I went through fertility treatment two years ago. I once hormonally bawled after my doctor left me a no-news voicemail—simply because he used his first name and I felt briefly as though he were my friend, rather than a man I more typically saw grasping an ultrasound wand and apologizing for the wait.)

Alicia’s episode is powerful because it lets viewers empathize with her, connect with her, and feel as though they’re by her side instead of watching her from the solitude of their homes. This element of connection, though, throws the rest of the season’s numbness into sharper contrast. All I want now, watching shows after 14 months of social withdrawal, is to be allowed into people’s lives again, to feel something intense and unfamiliar, to be granted even a fleeting attachment to someone I don’t know. “Next time, you bring someone to hold your hand, okay?” Cordelia says to Alicia in one scene. We’re not supposed to get through this kind of thing all by ourselves.

Solos, on Amazon Prime, must have felt like catnip to actors tired of puttering around their kitchens: seven vaguely futuristic and interconnected monologues, each one intended to make a specific point about isolation. The series creator, David Weil (this is his second show for Amazon, after the ’70s-set exploitation thriller Hunters), puts forth what he clearly thought was a winning formula: the uneasy intrigue of Black Mirror, the slightly scolding tone of The Twilight Zone, and the theatricality of a person talking to invisible strangers for 20 minutes at a time. The cast includes Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Uzo Aduba, Constance Wu, Anthony Mackie, and Helen Mirren, thrown into scenarios that place them by themselves in indeterminate moments in the future (a spaceship, a science lab, a waiting room, a house sealed shut). The series, as sold, considers what it means to be human when you’re separated from the people you love the most.

And yet. The monologue can be an art form, and also a fudge. One actor is cheaper than several, and a deliberately non-naturalistic monologue can be easier to write than realistic dialogue. Rarely does it work on television. Alan Bennett’s BBC/PBS collection, Talking Heads, is one exception, but it relies on the audience tacitly accepting the confessorial setup. Not to mention the fact that Bennett’s characters are deeply unreliable; they’re fascinating to watch because they let slip things about themselves that they don’t realize.

Solos, though, is earnest, and its characters are implausibly transparent and thus utterly unlike real people. Hathaway plays a scientist working on a time-travel project that seems to consist mostly of exposed light bulbs and ditsy “oops” moments; Mackie is a man with a terminal illness having a conversation with a robot version of himself; Mirren is an elderly woman who’s volunteered for a one-way trip into space because she feels insignificant on Earth. Each episode starts with a sonorous pronouncement from Freeman intended to set the tone, such as “Imagine meeting yourself. Who do you see?” It’s a clumsy way of introducing supposedly sage truths that never arrive. The characters are alone, but by virtue of such awkwardly manufactured circumstances that their experiences don’t resonate.

The two episodes of note feature Aduba as a woman who’s been confined to her home for 20 years after a terrible pandemic, and Nicole Beharie, a woman who gives birth alone in a snowstorm, with disquieting consequences. Both use horror to divert from the more pat “I am a person talking” tone of the other episodes. Aduba’s character, Sasha, is allowed to be frightened, angry, and irrational; Beharie is enthralling to watch as the self-contained Nera. But for the most part, the irony of these characters being alone and speaking directly to either the viewer or an intermediary is that they tell us very little about who they actually are. “If only I knew how much I meant to me,” Mirren’s character says at one point, the kind of innocuous therapy-speak that’s better stitched onto a throw pillow.

“You’re just a person. A human being,” Mackie’s robot self tells his real character. “That isn’t always easy. And that’s okay.” Two versions of the same man seem fated to have this kind of self-fortifying nonconversation instead of conflict that is revelatory or illuminating. I watched all seven installments thirsting for some human drama, the stuff of overheard phone fights and unintentionally public breakdowns. What I got instead was performers performing as hard as they could, out on their lonely stages.