When ‘Master of None’ Season 3 Isn’t Unbearably Slow, It Belongs to Naomi Ackie: TV Review
Four years after the last episode of “Master of None,” a new season will premiere and feel nothing like the show that preceded it.
When Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s series first debuted in 2015, it was one of Netflix’s early critical successes and an early indication of how storytelling on the streaming platform could be distinctive from broadcast and cable offerings. “Master of None” told the overarching story of Dev (Ansari), a B-list actor with expensive taste falling in love throughout New York City, with several self-contained narratives that were immediate standouts. Its second episode weaves in poignant flashbacks of Dev’s father (played by Ansari’s own) and the father (Clem Cheung) of his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) about their immigration to the United States. The season later explored the humiliation of stereotypes in “Indians on TV,” and then told the sloping middle of a love story through a series of mornings in the aptly titled “Mornings.” Season 2 went to Italy, where Dev nursed a broken heart and met another woman who would eventually break it again.
But the most immediately distinctive chapter of Season 2, and one of the series’ most lauded overall, was “Thanksgivings.” The episode gave co-star Lena Waithe her own showcase, and an Emmy for co-writing the script with Ansari. The episode ran through a series of brisk flashbacks to her character Denise’s long road to not just coming out as a lesbian to her mother (Angela Bassett), but feeling truly at home with her once she does. The new season of “Master of None” (technically called “Master of None Presents: Moments of Love”) gives her the floor almost entirely by cutting from Dev’s city life to Denise’s new upstate home, where she moved with her wife, Alicia (Naomi Ackie), after the success of her debut novel.
“Moments of Love” is a completely, deliberately different show. And if you didn’t know anything about what’s happened with its creative team since the second season, you might be very confused as to this new direction, and why Denise as a character feels so unmoored from her previous iteration that this season doesn’t feel like part of “Master of None” at all.
We’ll get to the latter point in a minute, but as to the former, a quick bit of context: Between the show’s second season and this new third one, Ansari became the center of one of the most complex and nuanced controversies of the #MeToo movement when a woman alleged that he’d behaved aggressively on a date. Ansari subsequently took a sizable step back from public life, until he went on the road with a contemplative new standup show in which he said the controversy made it feel like he “had died.” He didn’t, of course. And given his careful level of involvement in “Moments of Love,” Ansari has less removed himself from the equation entirely than adjusted his role within it.
For one, Ansari barely appears onscreen except as a contrast to Waithe’s Denise, who otherwise now anchors the show. He does, however, direct every episode on film in long take after long take as if staging his own Ingmar Bergman series. It’s undeniably jarring, in a good way, to see a story about a queer Black couple given the kind of treatment typically only bestowed upon white couples. And yet the stylistic gambit quickly wears out its welcome in the season’s first meandering chapter, which runs a solid 50 minutes long in fits and starts.
“Master of None” has always indulged a conversational detour, but previous versions at least took pains to fit within a half-hour runtime, a smart limit to which “Moments of Love” has no attachment. It’d be one thing if the episode used its extra time wisely. Instead, it lingers on banal back-and-forths and then fast forwards through the truly seismic events that reverberate through Denise and Alicia’s lives for the rest of the season. Ansari likewise plants half his shots in one place many feet away from his actors as if to mimic the feeling of eavesdropping on someone’s most intimate moments, but it mostly just feels frustrating not to be able to see the characters more clearly.
The season’s first real close-ups, in fact, don’t come until its fourth episode — which is not coincidentally focused on Ackie’s character rather than Waithe’s. This season’s iteration of Denise doesn’t feel like an older version of Denise so much as a very different one altogether, begging the question of why this couldn’t have just been a different show outside of the “Master of None” umbrella with Waithe playing a new character. Most notably, this Denise is much more stoic than the last, which the season acknowledges. But at some point, her total inability to express any extreme emotions in some of the most significant moments of her life just seems like a way to bypass the fact that Waithe’s range is much more limited than her scene partner’s. This also applies to the many, many minutes Ansari devotes to Denise simply sitting, staring, or eating a sandwich with no discernible nuance whatsoever. Whatever curated vibe these scenes are trying to go for, they end up feeling interminably long for the sake of it.
On that note, there are two great performances nestled in this otherwise plodding season. One comes courtesy of Denise and Alicia’s house, an absurdly charming cottage complete with wood beam ceilings, sloping wallpapered ceilings, and a sideways diamond stained glass window hanging just above their bed. Even more impressive is the fact that production designer Amy Williams created the interior of the house on a soundstage, building its many nooks and crannies from the ground up. And with Alicia pursuing interior design by way of antiques, Williams’ work takes on a crucial role that pays off in every lingering shot. In fact, the changes Denise and Alicia’s home undergoes over the years often tell the couple’s story better than the scripts dictating it.
The other standout turn is from Ackie, who also acts as an executive producer on this season that ends up squarely belonging to Alicia rather than Denise. In the first three episodes, Alicia’s frustration and palpable longing for a child give the series the emotional jolt it lacks from Denise. In the fourth, Alicia’s desperate, determined journey to motherhood through IVF nightmares and her insurance company’s total lack of understanding for what a queer woman might require of the process makes for the kind of standout episode that was once a “Master of None” signature. Here, the season’s insistence on letting every scene run twice as long as it might otherwise makes sense for its subject matter. Alicia running through endless IVF cycles and patiently sitting through appointment after appointment imparts the weight and weariness of this endlessly terrible, emotional process.
Maybe the season’s best Moment of Love comes when Alicia chickens out of an in-vitro injection and calls her mother for encouragement. Ackie sells Alicia’s rapid reactions of fear, excitement, relief and tender hope with the kind of remarkable realism that the rest of the season lacks. She’s so good here that when the fifth episode flashes forward to a future that makes no sense for the Alicia we saw at the end of the fourth, it’s a real disappointment. As much as “Moments of Love” wants to give Denise and the forced maturation of adult relationships the floor, its sporadically deft moments with Alicia make it hard not to want her starring in another series entirely that wouldn’t have had to deal with this much baggage.
The third season of “Master of None” premieres Friday, May 21 on Netflix.
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