Master of None’s Greatest Strength Is Its Curiosity

The Netflix series starring Aziz Ansari frequently strays from its protagonist to dive into the lives of characters on the margins.


This post contains some spoilers for Master of None Season 2.

It’s not an insult to Aziz Ansari to say that the best episodes of his show Master of None, which he co-created and stars in, are often the ones where he fades into the background. Still, it may be a weird conclusion to arrive at when you consider how crucial Ansari’s vision and comedic style—infectiously goofy, pop-culture savvy, and cleverly observational—are to the spirit of the series. When Netflix’s Master of None debuted in 2015, it garnered immediate praise from critics and viewers who admired its humor and keen social commentary. The show also stood out amid a renewed mainstream conversation about Hollywood diversity: Aziz and his co-creator Alan Yang (also a Parks and Recreation alumnus) made a show with people of color both in front of and behind the camera, and that had no qualms about doing entire storylines that probe race or gender.

In a nutshell, Master of None is about Dev Shah (Ansari), a 30-something Indian American actor living in New York and navigating love, work, family, and friends. But the show gets the most mileage out of this simple premise by pairing it with a vignette-y approach to its episodes. Less beholden to a well-plotted, serialized arc about Dev, Master of None has let its attention wander to other characters or big ideas whenever its creators please. In Season 1, this meant viewers got wonderful episodes like “Parents,” a flashback-filled tribute to the sacrifices many immigrants make for their children; “Ladies and Gentlemen,” a candid look at how differently men and women experience the world; and “Old People,” a poignant tale that humanized its elderly characters. These episodes work so well precisely because they decentered Dev’s viewpoint, and earnestly tried to dive into another’s.

If anything, Master of None’s Season 2, which debuts Friday, doubles down on this ethos of curiosity and reveals it to be the show’s greatest strength. TV is filled with episodes dedicated to supporting characters (The Ringer’s Alison Herman calls these “Deep-Benchers”). But with Master of None, such episodes aren’t one-offs; they’re regular extensions of the show’s apparently broader mission of elevating different viewpoints, usually those of people on the margins of society (senior citizens, immigrants, women). It’s no coincidence that the most memorable and powerful episodes of the new season are the ones that, deliberately, have little to do with the joys and troubles of its star.

Which isn’t to say Dev doesn’t matter; most of the show is still about him. In both seasons, he’s sometimes the entry point into these other stories, like when he’s asking a friend about coming out to her family, or talking to his girlfriend’s grandmother about the loneliness of aging. This tactic—making Dev an audience proxy, or using his ignorance about a subject to model his eventual enlightenment—could come off as moralistic. Some episodes could easily be renamed by attaching “Dev Learns a Lesson About …” to the title, but more often than not, the approach felt fairly organic in Season 1.

Which brings us to Season 2, where Master of None has gotten ambitious on several fronts. It’s more cinematic, an overused term that’s accurate in this case, given how heavily influenced it was by the Italian films Ansari and Yang devoured between seasons. The show is as funny and as well-written as ever, and has deepened its commitment to understanding how love and intimacy work in a hyperconnected age. The weakest part of the season, unfortunately, is perhaps its main arc: a confusing relationship between Dev and a woman he meets in Italy.

Meanwhile, the season’s two best episodes—“New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving”—aren’t about Dev at all. In the former, he and his friends appear for less than a minute; in the latter, Ansari shines as a supporting character. “New York, I Love You” tells three loosely linked stories about three different people living in the city: a doorman, a young deaf woman, and an immigrant cab driver. “Thanksgiving” is a coming-of-age tale spanning 22 years that follows Dev’s childhood friend Denise (a terrific Lena Waithe) and her road to coming out as gay to her family. Both installments are beautifully shot and deeply humane. And both focus on characters of color whose stories rarely appear in TV or film, in part because of their ability, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation.

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“New York, I Love You” starts out with Dev and his friends Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise talking about seeing a new Nicolas Cage movie. Without warning, the camera wanders away from them on the street and begins following a luxury-apartment doorman named Eddie (Frank Harts) as he listens to a older white resident complain about not being able to call Native Americans “Indians” anymore. It’s a thrilling moment as you realize Master of None is going a Slacker-esque route: Just when you think you know who the show wants you to care about, the camera yanks you away and introduces you to another, equally engrossing life.

This is particularly true of the middle story, which follows Maya (Treshelle Edmond), a young woman who works at a bodega. It takes a few moments before it hits you: Not only is she deaf, but also the sound for the episode has completely cut out. The rest of Maya’s story unfolds in silence, in American Sign Language with English subtitles. It’s perhaps trite to say that good TV transports viewers into other worlds, or at least outside their own experiences. But Master of None does so viscerally for hearing audiences, catching them off guard and temporarily plunging them into a simulation of Maya’s everyday reality. For deaf or hearing-impaired audiences, the show temporarily pulls their typically marginalized experience to the center. And Master of None does so while making Maya’s story every bit as funny and engaging as it would Dev’s—even if we never see her again.

The sequence calls to mind a brilliant scene from Season 1’s “Ladies and Gentlemen.” In it, the camera cuts back and forth between Dev and Arnold’s journey home from a bar (a largely peaceful trip set to Bobby McFerrin’s jaunty tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” that’s interrupted only by sidewalk dog poop), and a woman’s walk from the same bar (a terrifying, paranoid trek fraught with harassment and drunken stalking). This season, Master of None wades further into its experiment with perspective-shifting and manages to fully invest viewers in total strangers, if only for a few minutes.

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Right after “New York, I Love You” is “Thanksgiving,” which isn’t about a stranger but does flesh out an awesome character that Season 1 didn’t spend much time with. The episode—co-written by Waithe, who based the story on her own life—begins on Thanksgiving Day in 1995 and returns to the holiday every several years, following Denise from childhood to the present-day. Always at her side is Dev, though he and Denise have effectively switched places. For half an hour, she’s the star, and he’s the funny, supportive friend.

But the dynamic that really matters in “Thanksgiving” (directed by Melina Matsoukas) is between Denise and her mom Catherine (played by a radiant Angela Bassett). “Both of you are minorities ... a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far,” she tells a young Denise and Dev in 1995. “And Denise, you’re a black woman so you’re going to have to work three times as hard.” It’s an idea that feels central to an episode largely populated by black women of different generations—Denise’s grandmother, aunt, mother, and the “friends” she eventually brings home.

Denise (Lena Waithe) in “Thanksgiving.” (Netflix)

The episode revisits Catherine’s words years later when Denise finally comes out to her as a lesbian. Shocked by her daughter’s revelation, Catherine can barely choke out a response. “I don’t want life to be hard for you,” she says, holding back tears. “It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world, and now you want to go and add something else to that.” Their  brief conversation is followed by other, uneasy Thanksgiving meals, where Dev is always a gleeful guest (and the only man present) trying to cut the tension that arises whenever Denise’s dates show up. But Master of None’s attention belongs fully to Denise and her mother, and the years of fear, confusion, and love that define their relationship. It’s a treatment at least as layered and profound as the one given to Dev’s bond with his own parents, if not more so.

Unlike ensemble shows that use perspective-shifting to build out their self-contained fictional worlds (think Game of Thrones), Master of None doesn’t seem to conceive episodes like “Thanksgiving” with a larger narrative endgame in mind. You get the sense that Ansari and Yang are showing you people you may not meet again simply because the creators find them interesting and worth celebrating. And given who Master of None ends up spending time with, it’s hard not to feel like there’s a moral dimension to the show’s inquisitive, inclusive brand of empathy.

There’s also an appealing humility at work. Yes, Dev is still unquestionably the protagonist and soul of Master of None. But in the episodes where he’s eagerly asking other people for their unique insights (like in Season 2’s excellent, sprawling “First Date”), or when he lets them take control of the spotlight, he’s openly admitting there’s a lot he doesn’t know. And by extension, he’s reminding viewers that it’s okay—that it’s good, even imperative—to be curious about the lives of others, particularly those who are so often told by society that theirs don’t matter as much. The thing is, Ansari is a sharp, charismatic, and lovable performer who could easily carry the show on his own. That he chooses not to is exactly what makes Master of None so special.