The first two seasons of Master of None were defined by unpredictability. While the larger arc of each season tended to involve the love life of Dev, a modestly successful actor played by Aziz Ansari — who co-created Master of None with fellow Parks and Rec alum Alan Yang — individual episodes could take place anywhere and be about anyone. One installment might be a black-and-white homage to neorealistic Italian cinema where Dev learns to make pasta, while another might be the story of Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) gradually coming out to her family. Some might barely feature the main characters at all, like a collection of short stories about immigrants and other New Yorkers whose stories are rarely told on film. Intertwined with episodes focusing on Dev’s romantic pursuits, the series smartly blended the best pieces of modern serialized television and the anthological approach of the medium’s first golden age in the Fifties and early Sixties.
With this belated third batch, Master of None transforms yet again. The approach this time is less The Twilight Zone than American Horror Story — a five-episode arc subtitled “Moments in Love” that’s built around Denise (Dev appears briefly a few times) and feels like nothing the series has done before. It’s been four years since we saw either character, and both have been through big changes. Denise is now a successful author living in a gorgeous, ramshackle country house with her partner Alicia (Naomi Ackie), and when Dev pays them a visit, it’s clear he’s been left behind by her move to fancier social circles(*). But as peaceful and happy as Denise and Alicia’s marriage seems from the outside, we are being introduced to it at a perilous moment. Denise’s struggles with her second book collide with Alicia’s desire to have a baby, in the process revealing that their relationship may not be as picture-perfect as the home that Denise bought and Alicia decorated.
(*) Dev’s minimal on-camera presence allows Ansari to focus on the creative end of things, since he directed every episode and co-wrote them all with Waithe. But given that uncomfortable details of his personal life became public in between seasons, it also plays as a soft re-opening of sorts for him as an actor.
Creatively, this is Waithe and Ansari in full Scenes From a Marriage mode. Ansari shot it in a 4:3 aspect ratio (Ingmar Bergman originally made Scenes as a miniseries for Swedish television) on what looks like grainy film stock. If not for Denise having a laptop or a phone — or, for that matter, if not for this being the story of a queer, black married couple barely dealing with homophobia at all — it might as well be an artifact from the early Seventies.
The pacing takes the “Moments” part of the subtitle extremely seriously, as long swaths of each episode just feature Denise and Alicia hanging around the house, washing dishes, doing laundry, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the countryside. It’s meant as an immersive technique — a way to make the viewer feel like they’re in this relationship at this particular inflection point when things are on the verge of going from blissful to anguished — but one that is asking a lot of patience from the audience. The 55-minute opening episode effectively sets a mood and the state of the marriage, but can feel self-indulgent next to the second and third episodes, which both clock in at less than 30 minutes (albeit at times feeling longer than that).
But those viewers willing to be patient will find reward in the penultimate episode, a Naomi Ackie spotlight in which Alicia navigates the emotional ups and downs of fertility treatments. It’s another long, slow outing, but one where all the waiting is palpably, at times heartbreakingly, the point of the whole tale. That episode doesn’t retroactively make the earlier installments move more quickly, but it does make the approach make some sense.
That fourth one is a beautiful hour of TV, and among the best things Master of None has ever done. It doesn’t fully work without all the setup of the earlier chapters, plus what’s revealed about both characters in the epilogue-style fifth episode. But I wonder if Waithe, Ansari, Yang, and company would have been able to use Denise and Alicia’s story as the spine of a season structured more like the earlier two, with episodes bouncing between their complicated romance and events in the lives of other people — whether other supporting characters like Eric Wareheim’s Arnold (entirely absent this time around) or brand-new figures like the immigrant cab drivers from Season Two’s classic “New York, I Love You.”
That’s clearly not the way anyone involved wanted to tell the story, though, and this one is still interesting even before that knockout Alicia hour. “Moments in Love” is a gamble that doesn’t fully pay off, but it’s great to know that after years apart, Ansari and Waithe were willing to try something both so different and yet so true to the larger spirit of what the show was before.
Season Three of Master of None premieres May 23rd on Netflix. I’ve seen all five episodes.