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When Master of None premiered in late 2015, the Netflix romantic dramedy joined a crowded landscape of stories about 30-ish protagonists on a quest to meet The One, even if they couldn’t imagine settling down anytime soon. The cultural specificity that star and co-creator Aziz Ansari brought to his character Dev’s search for love distinguished the series, of course, as did its expansive approach to diverse storytelling, which notably didn’t end with Indian American Dev, his Taiwanese American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) and his Black lesbian childhood bestie Denise (Lena Waithe), but looked toward the far wider urban topography they occupied. New York City is packed with many more types of people than can be readily pictured, Master of None seemed to argue, and every last one deserves their own love story.
Ansari and company return after a four-year break, still guided by that series ethos. Season three — subtitled Moments in Love — marks a radical departure, even for a show that’s embraced formal elasticity from the start. Waithe, who won an Emmy for co-writing the semiautobiographical season two episode “Thanksgiving” with Ansari, takes center stage — this time for all five installments. (Episode lengths vary between 30 and 60 minutes.) In contrast to the Manhattan and Brooklyn cityscapes we’re used to, the new season mostly takes place in an eclectically boho but unmistakably bougie cottage upstate, where Denise, now a best-selling writer struggling to pen her second book, has holed up with her English wife, Alicia (Naomi Ackie), an aspiring interior decorator.
Master of None
Airdate: Sunday, May 23 (Netflix)
Cast: Lena Waithe, Naomi Ackie
Creators: Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang
But the most notable difference between Moments in Love and its preceding seasons might be how adult it all feels. Denise and Alicia are, in a sense, playing house — they first appear outside of time in their cozy but isolated existence, a GOOPy vision of soft-lit rusticity and aspirational hygge. I’ll say here — undercutting my own review — that season three is best watched totally cold, but if you choose to continue reading, I have to reveal that it derives its emotional might from exploring that transitional life phase in one’s mid- to late 30s when you’ve lived long enough to experience true failure, witness the mortality and frailty of your elders and face the absolute closure of certain possibilities. Denise and Alicia undergo fertility issues, the deaths of family members and the aftermath of wunderkind success. And then the season opens its heart again, to expand its ideas of romance and love to rousing, even provocative, heights.
It also takes its damn time getting there. Ansari appears for about seven or so minutes total as a strikingly deglamorized version of Dev, mostly staying behind the camera. (All episodes are directed by Ansari and co-written by him and Waithe.) If season one was heavily influenced by Woody Allen and season two paid tribute to Italian neorealism, Moments in Love’s lodestar is Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (down to the similar titles). The autobiographical elements in Bergman’s miniseries/film even find a parallel in the details seemingly borrowed from Waithe’s personal life; despite Denise and Alicia’s full characterizations, certain authorial choices make it practically impossible not to speculate how much of her own feelings and experiences the writer-actor put into this season.
Moments in Love is leisurely paced and often visually static, though great care has been taken by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis and production designer Amy Williams to surround the actors in naturalistic light and plenty of character. Like “Thanksgiving,” the season is soundtracked to R&B bops, although orchestral music and operatic arias — along with a couple of smart time jumps — lend Denise and Alicia’s romance a sense of epic grandeur.
Jokes were rarely Master of None’s forte before, but season three’s somber, resignedly pragmatic tone renders comedy nearly an afterthought. The sudden cracks in Denise and Alicia’s relationship are believable but not particularly engaging, though there are fascinating and cruel surprises along the way.
It’s in the final two episodes that this season becomes an essential chapter of the show, first by illustrating, with a warm and grounded intimacy, the lengths Alicia will go for the kind of love she craves in her life. But it’s the last episode that truly dazzles, pushing Master of None out of its comfort zone of lovelorn pining into emotional and ethical complexities that never lose their sense of headlong romance. Master of None has, finally and indisputably, grown up.
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