After the second season of “Master of None” premiered on Netflix to critical acclaim in May 2017, co-creator and star Aziz Ansari cast doubt on the possibility that the show would return. “I’ve got to become a different guy before I write a third season,” Ansari remarked. “I don’t have anything else to say about being a young guy being single in New York eating food around town all the time.”
To put it mildly, a lot has happened since then. In January 2018, Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct in an anonymous article published on Babe.net, after which he receded from the spotlight, resurfacing only for live stand-up comedy performances and a taped special released by Netflix in 2019.
The newest season of “Master of None,” however, is in no way an exploration of whatever “different guy” Ansari might have become in the intervening years. Entitled “Moments in Love,” season three focuses instead on Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, who is now a successful author married to Alicia (Naomi Ackie), an aspiring interior designer.
Ansari was correct, if a bit reductive, when he described the first incarnation of “Master of None” as a show about a single guy looking for places to eat in New York. This version of the show was charming and often insightful, but under the circumstances, a third season of Dev Shah’s (Ansari), wacky professional and romantic adventures would have been tasteless. The new incarnation retains a few of these tendencies, but is mostly unrecognizable: It’s a mature, refreshing departure that sacrifices pizzazz for profundity and cutesiness for craftsmanship.
The first two episodes introduce us to and then destroy Denise and Alicia’s relationship, with the scenes separated by quiet shots of the interior and exterior of their upstate New York estate. The shots are beautifully framed, engaging enough that their interruption of the narrative flow is hardly noticed.
Such frames fall into place like gorgeous bricks building a wall around the couple’s idyllic residence — but the aesthetic is only charming at first. As the marriage begins to fall apart, the once comforting images of fences and trees begin to feel suffocating instead. The shots themselves don’t change, only the circumstances around them, and this subtle shift makes for one of the season’s more fascinating throughlines.
The dissolution of Denise and Alicia’s marriage is only the beginning of their story, and as such, it feels inevitable, making it difficult to invest in their relationship in the first few episodes. The show’s first, hourlong episode builds the foundation of their marriage, but it’s not quite strong enough for it to hurt when it gets knocked down. The dialogue between Rae and Ackie is slightly contrived, which isn’t new for “Master of None,” but the emotional impact of their divorce is contingent on our belief in their strong, organic bond, which their strained interactions impede.
But once the show gets past this hurdle, it gives itself space to fully materialize. It shines in the fourth episode, which follows Alicia in her attempt to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Ackie is phenomenal in the role, which isn’t an easy one to pull off — we catch Alicia in small moments that are detached from the broader context, such as a five-minute phone call with her mother while watching a commercial or a self-administered medication injection during a break at work. The discrete scenes, which have neither buildup nor resolution, require Ackie to access layered, intense emotions seemingly out of thin air. She handles the challenge with grace.
The composition of these scenes is noteworthy as well. The excruciatingly long, unbroken shots of Alicia on the operating table unearth the grotesque helplessness underlying mundane medical processes. But when placed beside Ackie’s performance of exaltation, as well as deep despair, it results in a seamless episode of television unlike anything else on the airwaves.
The announcement that “Master of None” would return was not exactly cause for celebration at first glance — Ansari said himself that there wasn’t much left for us to learn from his perspective on the world. In its new conception, though, the series justifies its continued existence. If future seasons will explore even more dimensions of human life, especially ones we don’t often see represented on screen, it will remain a valuable presence in our streaming libraries.
Matthew DuMont is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].