The first season of Netflix’s Master of None served as an introduction into the world of Dev Shah, a millennial actor negotiating the typical quotidian challenges a person in their thirties faces in a town like Manhattan. Whether dealing with career, relationships or just the general existential ‘what not’ part and parcel to the human condition, living in New York City adds a sense of urgency and anxiety to it all, which can sometimes cloud your judgement, causing you to make mistakes you wouldn’t have normally made in another context. This is why starting off season 2 in a small Italian village, free of that pressure, was such an inspired choice. Getting to see Dev live, work and react to this new foreign environment, we gain a deeper perspective into what makes him tick…the things he truly values. And what I came away with was that at his core, Dev Shah is a true romantic.
Throughout the season, Aziz Ansari instils Dev with a specific mix of yearning and aspiration that is heavily reminiscent of the protagonists of Antonini and Fellini. This homage to Italian cinema is used as both theme and guide to the episodes. It’s a bold move in the sense that focusing one’s art through a specific lens, you always run the risk of splitting audience reaction/appreciation into two camps – the ones that ‘get it’ and the ones that don’t. As a fan of Italian movies, be it the masterpieces of neorealism like the Bicycle Thief and La Strada or sixties-era icons like Il Posto and L’Aventura, I fell decidedly into the former.
When we first meet up with Dev, he is working as a pasta maker in the picturesque village of Modena. He bikes to work, enjoys his morning coffee, interacts with the locals in their own language…his pace has slowed to a content crawl. It is an idyllic existence or so it seems. Soon enough, that first impression is subsumed by the broader picture – he is lonely, he is an outsider and he has unfinished business back home. Despite enjoying a fresh collection of friends, including the lovely Francesca – ably played by Alessandra Mastronardi – he understands that he must return to New York and pick up where he left off.
This is where the season begins in earnest.
Rejuvenated from his stint in Italy, Dev’s life appears to fall into place, quickly picking up a new gig as the host of a Food Network-type show called Cupcake Wars and resuming his social life via the ubiquitous platform of choice – the dating app. One of the season’s best episodes, “First Date,” follows Dev on a slew of dates ranging from the barely tenable to the actively tedious. It is an affecting look into the awkward, halting, uncomfortable encounters everyone goes through in the search for true connection. Ansari’s astute observation that along with the convenience of apps like Tinder comes a treadmill hopelessness is both insightful and funny as hell.
This, however, brings me to my major issue with the season. Aside from the aforementioned “First Date,” and Dev’s sporadic interactions with his buddy Arnold – Eric Wareheim – the laughs are too few and far between. Aziz instead chooses a more reflective tone to explore, through Dev and his friends, the weighty topics of identity, ethnicity, racism, misogyny, religion, responsibility, and all the ambiguities that go along with them. That is in essence what the season is about, the ambiguities of life, culminating in Dev’s complicated relationship with Francesca, the subject to which he dedicates the final chapters of the story.
Francesca is engaged to Pino, an amiable – if not a bit self-involved and boring – man she’s been with her entire adult life. Her home, and everything she’s ever known is in Italy. Dev is a New Yorker. Sure he can play the part of the tourist, but it’s not who he is. The reality is, he is young guy with no small amount of ambition, who seeks a meaningful existence with someone he can be his true self with. His true self – but who is that really? This path of self-discovery twists and turns — with varying degrees of enlightenment — throughout the season. In episodes like “Religion” which revolves around the obligations and complexities of being brought up Muslim in America, and the brilliant “New York, I Love You” where the focus is expanded to include Dev’s fellow inhabitants on the island of Manhattan, the audience is challenged to ask themselves the same questions faced by the characters in the story.
Along the way, Dev is confronted with hard decisions over his career and the uncomfortable position he’s placed in by his boss – excellently portrayed by Bobby Cannavale – as well the choice we all face at some point in our lives between doing what’s right and doing what ‘feels’ right in the moment.
I won’t ruin the ending, but I will say it’s not what one would typically expect. Does Dev come to some sort of greater understanding of himself? Is he able to make those tough decisions and come out emotionally intact? Does he find love?
You’ll just have to watch it and draw your own conclusions. I can honestly say that it’s well worth the effort.