Somewhere along the line, our collective obsessions with stand-up comedy and prestige television crossed paths, and every comedian decided they had to stop being funny and instead become an auteur. Perhaps we could call it Woody Allen syndrome, if that didn't suggest something far more sinister. Whatever the case, people like Louis C.K., Marc Maron and now Aziz Ansari are less satisfied in telling jokes than they are attempting to show us just how interesting they are.
Master of None, the critically adored Netflix show Ansari co-created with Alan Yang, has certainly taken big strides to avoid being pigeonholed as a traditional sitcom. Like its predecessor, Season 2 finds the duo throwing all kinds of ideas at us and delivering mixed results.
Adam Sandler has been criticized for using his big-budget bro comedies to fund vacations for he and his buddies, and one begins to wonder if that criticism could also be used on Ansari were we not blinded by his hip musical cues and sophisticated cinematography. Season 2 has very little plot, though it still gives Dev (Ansari) and Arnold (co-star Eric Wareheim) plenty of excuses to chow down on delicious food in the Italian countryside.
The season's first episode is almost unbearably pretentious at times. Shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, there are some on-the-nose moments that show Ansari practically begging to be taken seriously. Take, for example, a panning shot where he wakes up in bed and we see a stack of entry-level Criterion Blu-rays on his bedside table. It's a shot that one can't stop thinking about when Ansari spends later episodes indulging his foodie tendencies and spinning vinyl while lounging in the mid-century modern decor of his bougie NYC apartment.
Ultimately, Dev is a well-off yuppie whose biggest problem seems to be that he can't decide if his charmed life is good enough. Without question, the main plot points of Master of None are steeped in entitlement: Should Dev take a high-paying showbiz job, even if his heart isn't fully in it? Or should he quit and wait for the next thing, since he apparently has enough money to sustain his culinary orgy of a lifestyle either way? And how can he convince the woman he loves to leave her current beau for him, since she makes him so happy?
These characters are hard to sympathize with, and the acting doesn't help. Both Ansari and Wareheim spend the first half of the season engaging in wacky banter that may have worked on the latter's Awesome Show, Great Job! but doesn't deliver enough humanity here.
For all the bad, however, there are also plenty of redeeming moments in the second series. Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi shines as Francesca and Bobby Cannavale is a welcome addition as a douchey Anthony Bourdain-inspired celebrity chef. Dev's hosting gig at the fictional Cupcake Wars provides plenty of behind-the-scenes laughs, even if they feel far too familiar for anyone who's watched Extras or any of Judd Apatow's one zillion projects about the business of show.
Ultimately, though, Master of None succeeds because of its variety. Ansari and Yang are never afraid to go off on tangents, and while they're certainly hit-and-miss, the payoffs are often worth it. An episode spends decades to explore the familial tension of Dev's friend Denise (Lena Waithe) coming out as a lesbian, while another offers Slacker-like snippets of New Yorkers in the service industry. These are among the show's best episodes yet.
As the season (and potentially series) comes to its conclusion with two episodes that work as a feature-length rom-com, one gets the sense that Aziz Ansari is trying very hard. His ambitions don't always deliver, but maybe they're not supposed to. After all, Ansari is a jack of all trades and — I mean, it's right there in the title.