Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Beauty and Brilliance of 'Master of None'

*Spoilers will follow for all of Master of None.*

As pretty much all of my friends know, it's hard to get me to watch a TV show. Since I'm known by almost everyone as the movie guy, people often ask me if I've seen a certain TV show or recommend others for me to watch. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard "You've never watched Game of Thrones?!?!" or "What do you mean you haven't seen Breaking Bad!!" Television is a massive time commitment and in between watching endless new releases at the movie theater and reviewing them here, it's hard for me to sit down and watch a lengthy show. Hell, I often miss out on the shows that I even personally want to watch, such as Season 2 of Netflix's Narcos or Season 3 of Fargo (I plan on binging the rest of these soon). I watch South Park and Family Guy to kill time, but I couldn't tell you a damn thing about Orange is the New Black or The Sopranos. But there's something about the current direction of television that is pulling me closer and closer to the medium, and I think that the line between film and TV is being blurred. After all, what do you consider Stranger Things to be? Is it television or is it a 6 hour film? I would lean towards the latter, and I think that's one of the main reasons for its success.

While HBO and FX have been on the front lines of posing the question of "What is television?" no other studio has done as much to change the perception of what episodic TV can be as Netflix. While they're currently engaged in a bitter war against the major Hollywood film studios, I think it's safe to say that they already beat the TV networks- ABC, NBC, and CBS don't stand a chance from a production standpoint. They're producing stuff that nobody else would touch, and they're crafting shows with seasons that stand on their own, all available on one day and easy to digest in one sitting as one story. They've crafted a creative monopoly on original storytelling, and due to their immense financial capabilities, they're able to take a chance on shows and filmmakers that wouldn't stand a chance in the traditional realm. Netflix is doing incredible work, and each day I'm more and more of a fan of what they're doing.

Which brings me to the real topic of this article. Ever since the first season of the show premiered in late 2015, I've been hearing about Master of None. A teacher recommended it to me initially, and I never got around to watching it. But as Season 2 rolled around in May of this year, the excitement grew to a fever pitch. Everyone started telling me that I simply had to check it out, and I heard enough things that piqued my interest that I was willing to give it a shot. Each season is relatively short, which made it easy for me to find time to watch it in this insanely busy month. But I'll be honest- it didn't hook me initially. The first half of Season 1 has strong moments that introduce the aesthetic and comedic qualities of the show, but it contains some of the weaker stand-alone episodes. But then around Episode 6, something changes. And I was in.

When I say that Master of None (especially Season 2) is the best thing I've seen all year, I don't mean it lightly. This show is straight-up incredible, and anybody who isn't watching it is doing themselves a major disservice (I've become the thing I once feared the most). It's breathtakingly cinematic, hopelessly romantic, incredibly smart, and endlessly humorous- every adjective that you throw at it, Master of None fits the bill. Aziz Ansari has crafted a show of compelling contradictions, and I can't say enough about the fact that it's the most impressive comedic television I've ever seen from a production standpoint. A masterful blend of episodic genius and storytelling bliss, Master of None is the kind of instantly iconic piece of cinema (yes, cinema) that I just can't stop thinking about. So let's break it down, shall we?

The plot is simple. Dev (Ansari) is a struggling actor living in New York, and he and his friends- Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Brian (Kelvin Yu)- have a variety of experiences with modern culture and hot-button topics like dating, sexuality, and family life. The first season of Master of None is certainly inferior to the second season, but it establishes the characters and the setting, and it builds up a head of steam that really pays off as the show moves forward. The initial five episodes contain some gems and some other episodes that are less satisfying. "Plan B" is a good pilot that introduces the conversational feel of the show and Ansari's distinct sense of humor, "Parents" is an incredibly smart and compelling look at generational and cultural differences, and even "The Other Man" has its charms, as well as a pair of wonderful guest performances from Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich.

Right from the start, Ansari establishes an auteur visual stamp that is consistently maintained throughout the entire run of the show. Master of None's aspect ratio is 2.35:1 as opposed to the 1.78:1 used by most television shows, a quality that separates it from the rest of the comedic pack. In addition, the cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard is never anything less than stunning, while each director also manages to put their own touch on the show. Master of None is undeniably beautiful, and its sumptuous visuals make it feel cinematic in the best possible way. But the first season really doesn't click into place until Episode 6, when it becomes clear that Master of None isn't just an extremely well made sitcom- it's a full-blown romantic comedy. For all of the show's impressive production values, it really settles into a groove when it becomes a show about the perils and pleasures of modern romance. Rachel, played by Noel Wells, is introduced in the very first episode as part of an awkward sexual encounter, but she really becomes a factor in the second half of the season. And that's when the show clicked for me.

Wells is a tremendously gifted actress and Rachel is a character who is easy to love. "Nashville," directed by Ansari himself, was the turning point for me and the exact moment when I fell head over heels in love with the show. It's such an effortlessly funny, genuine piece of romantic television, and there's something to be said for the rewards of leaving the New York setting. "Nashville" has a documentary-like feel, and the relationship between Dev and Rachel is organic and heartfelt in the best possible way. Ansari has said that Season 1 is about not knowing what you want, while Season 2 is about wanting what you can't have, and I think that contrast plays really well in terms of the relationships as well. Dev and Rachel have a very natural, realistic relationship, one with flaws, fights, and doubts. Season 2's romance is almost pure fantasy, a shimmering, heart-stopping display of love that exists as the kind of romance that exists only in our wildest dreams.

It's interesting to watch Master of None evolve over the course of its 20 episodes, and while I think Season 2 is undoubtedly superior to its predecessor, there's no doubt that I was incredibly invested in the romance between Dev and Rachel in the latter half of Season 1. After a couple of engaging episodes from director Lynn Shelton that involve gender dynamics and our relationship with elders, Master of None takes its most experimental step forward with "Mornings," directed by supporting star Eric Wareheim. Consisting entirely of a series of scenes involving Dev and Rachel's morning routines, you see their cutest moments, their biggest fights, and the fundamental rift in their relationship that might not be solved. Master of None is great at dealing with social issues and Millenial problems, but the show is at its best when it steps outside of its comfort zone and experiments with structure, style, and cinematic composition. "Nashville" is the first step, but "Mornings" really sets the tone for the next season. The penultimate episode leads into a finale (simply titled "Finale") that is equally melancholy and hopeful, an odd combination that leaves us on a bit of a cliff-hanger. From the start, Master of None establishes itself as a show where drama is just as important as comedy, but the final two episodes of Season 1 stand as a shift in Ansari's approach. The show is as dramatically affecting as it is comically relevant, and the final episodes of Season 1 feature as much beautiful heartache as anything I've seen on television.

And then Season 2 comes and blows it all away. The finale of Season 1 ends with Dev on a plane to Italy, hoping to learn how to make pasta from the best chefs in the world. His relationship with Rachel has ended on a rather surprising note, and he doesn't seem to have much left to give the acting world either. So on a whim, he packs his bags, gets on a plane, and moves to Modena. Season 2 is nothing short of remarkable, and it achieves the balance that Ansari attempted to master in Season 1. It's a huge artistic step forward for the show, so perfect and so satisfying that I don't even know if Season 3 would be worth it. In just 10 short episodes, we're treated to a black-and-white spectacle inspired by classic Italian cinema, a love story for the ages, two stand-alone episodes that feel like the pinnacle of Ansari's powers of social analysis, and so much more. Master of None had a clear vision in its first season, but the second season feels truly visionary.

The first two episodes of the season- "The Thief" and "Le Nozze"- both take place in Italy, and like I said with "Nashville" in Season 1, there's something to be said for how impressive this show can be when it leaves the New York setting. There has been much debate about the usefulness of these two episodes in the scheme of the season, and I honestly can't say that I understand why. "The Thief" is vital in regards to introducing the new players of the season, specifically Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), undoubtedly the most integral new character. But it's also just a fun episode of the show- it does what Master of None does best, but with an artistic flair. It wears its influences on its sleeve, and it tells a compelling story of Dev's life after Rachel. This is a theme that is expanded upon in "Le Nozze," which features a lush and sumptuous trip through the Italian countryside with Arnold. If anything, these first two episodes feel like the necessary conclusion to Season 1- after Dev and Rachel's abrupt break-up, his trip to Italy is really his recovery in a way.

But even as Master of None doubles down on its serialized plot, it also features some of the best individual episodes of the entire show. Much has been said about "Thanksgiving," and I'm not sure there's anything I can say that others haven't already conveyed in much better thinkpieces. The episode chronicles Denise's process of coming out as a gay black woman over the series of several holiday dinners, and it's a lovely, funny, poignant piece of work that does in 35 minutes what most movies can't do in more than double that time. In addition, the Alan Yang-directed "New York, I Love You" steps away from the show's main cast of characters to depict a variety of New Yorkers of diverse backgrounds in their daily lives. There's much to be said about how Master of None depicts minority communities and gives a platform to voices that are often ignored by Hollywood, and these two episodes are the best example of this. "New York, I Love You" features a stretch with a deaf woman (Treshelle Edmond) that is completely silent, an immersive experience that manages to be witty, heartfelt, and downright revolutionary. At times, it feels like Master of None is practically showing off, but everything it does is so pure and so genuine that you can't help but love it.

In addition, "First Date" feels like Wareheim's way of topping "Mornings," as he showcases Dev on a variety of first dates that range from mediocre to straight-up horrifying. It's clear that Ansari finds a lot to laugh at when it comes to modern dating culture, and the complex, intricate structure of "First Date" makes for the best satire of the topic yet. Many of the episodes in Season 2 hone in on themes explored in Season 1, such as "Religion," an episode that feels like a direct follow-up to "Parents." It's a quick episode, but an essential one, and it gives another opportunity for Shoukath and Fatima Ansari (Aziz's real parents, who also play Dev's parents on the show) to show off their comedic chops. In every way, Ansari improves on what he did in Season 1, blending humor, an effortless sense of diversity and inclusion, and unrelenting empathy to a show that is as beautiful as anything on television or in theaters.

But what really sets Season 2 apart is the heartbreaking romance at its core, the plot thread that continues throughout the entire 10 episode run. Dev meets Francesca in Italy, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has some serious feelings for her. There's only one small problem- she's engaged to marry Pino (Riccardo Scarmarcio), her longtime boyfriend from Modena. That doesn't stop Dev and Francesca from hanging out as friends, and in "The Dinner Party," they even go together to a swanky event hosted by Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale), a character who represents one of the few true missteps of Season 2. "The Dinner Party" is a solid episode that turns into a great one thanks to a breathtaking shot, one that stands alongside the final image of James Mangold's Logan as one of the best shots of the year. On an Uber ride home, Dev drops Francesca off at her hotel, quietly saying goodnight with a hug and not even the smallest hint of a kiss or romantic moment. Dev motions for the driver to go, and as Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" kicks in, the camera lingers on him. He sits, he looks around, he reads a text from Francesca, he puts his face in his hands- and the camera stays, watching. There's nothing flashy about it, but it's a scene that says so much, and it's a moment that conveys so much that I've felt in my own personal life. It's a shattering moment, a scene so simple that it becomes revolutionary. It's everything great about Master of None in one take.

And then we reach the final two episodes, both directed by Ansari, that represent this show and this unique cinematic auteur at their absolute best. While I've emphasized the romantic elements of Master of None before, the conclusion to Season 2 is when the show goes from being a romantic comedy to a full-on romance. Oh, and what a blissful, tragic romance it is. Dev and Francesca's relationship goes down some beautiful paths, especially in "Amarsi Un Po," the penultimate chapter that stands as the longest episode in the show's history. They do all the things that couples do, but there's this line in the sand that contributes to the tension of the entire episode. It's a piece of cinematic television full of gorgeously realized moments, such as a playfully sensual dance set to "Guarda come dondolo" and a sleepover during a dangerous blizzard. Each scene feels sweeping and grand, and the fact that you love these characters so much only increases the emotion and the passion. The episode ends on a quietly tragic moment that lays everything on the table, and I genuinely mean it when I say that "Amarsi Un Po" is a straight-up masterpiece.

The finale, entitled "Buona Notte," is more flawed, mostly due to a revelation about Chef Jeff that breaks up some of the momentum established by the ninth episode. But it's still a tremendous finale, one that features a moment of romantic intrigue and tension that is as jaw-dropping as anything I've seen. Forget La La Land- this is the cinematic romance I've been waiting for. Master of None ends on a decidedly ambiguous note, one that feels necessary given the nature of Dev and Francesca's relationship. Master of None is proud to be inspired by so many excellent pieces of cinema, and the ending feels like a subtle nod to Mike Nichols' The Graduate, where the nature of passion and hindsight are called into question. Can you fall in love with someone after knowing them for only a month? Will you be happy with that choice? Master of None's final image doesn't give any answers, but the questions it manages to raise are vital and endlessly compelling.

Master of None is a sneakily profound show. It doesn't seem like a must-watch, the kind of enormously affecting piece of work that you simply have to see. But I believe that Ansari has crafted something that deserves to be considered as one of the best shows that television has to offer. It's a near-perfect blend of episodic genius and romantic serialization, and it's a show that has matured and evolved over time. Master of None benefits from Ansari's autobiographical touch, but you can feel the impact of almost everyone who is involved with the production. Wareheim, Yang, Waithe, Wells, Mastronardi- everyone is absolutely essential in bringing this show to vivid life. Master of None comes from a place of genuine emotion, whether it's passion, heartbreak, sadness, or everything in between. It's so much more than just another comedy, and Ansari is so much more than another comedian attempting to replicate Woody Allen. This show hit me on a deep level, and I can't remember the last time I was so impacted by something.

Master of None defies description. It's a gorgeously shot masterwork of filmmaking from a crew of extremely talented people, it's an achingly personal work of art from a true genius, and it's a sensual piece of romantic cinema that feels truly iconic. It experiments, it messes with style and genre, and it never stays in its comfort zone. It's a daring, remarkable work that constantly reinvents itself in fresh new ways, and it's so engaging and innovative that I almost can't believe that it exists. If you're like me and resisted watching this show for the longest time, it's time to rectify that mistake. Master of None will take your breath away. It's that good.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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