‘Master of None’ found its mastery depicting New York as we know it.
Beyond merely being good, the second season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None has been abundantly praised with that most meaningful modifier the contemporary click-hungry critic can give: real. The fabled immigrant narrative, boom. How lonely social media makes us feel, check. How millennials like myself listen to and discover music, bam. (Like most of my generation, I only really got into John Legend after catching him in an impromptu show at a dinner party.) Hell, even the differences between Italian and American culture. (Take that, Sopranos.) But amid all this scripted realness, there’s also the very real city that the vast majority of the show takes place in, is filmed in. As the silly cliché goes, the city is the show’s central character, and the genius of Master of None is its ability to captures a city at the tail end of demographic change, unsentimental about its pre-gentrification past. Through the thickly-polished veneer of Ansari’s protagonist, Dev, we see a city glad its cultural centers were replaced with the chic restaurants and mini-hipster meccas that have been subject to so much squeamish satire for the past decade. Who wouldn’t love this city if you could taste it, Ansari asks.
Dev, initially, is a curious choice to embody the city’s exported ur-citizen. Unlike the struggling actors, struggling artisans or struggling comedians that have populated the city in the sitcom imagination, Dev is comfortably employed; by the second episode of the second season, he lands a job as a gameshow host (The choice to situate Dev comfortably was always deliberate: per a Reddit AMA with Ansari after the first season, “We mainly did this to differentiate from the other New York shows where characters are younger and not doing as well work wise.”) Dev’s analog is not, then, suffering millennials or middle-aged schmucks but someone like Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders, sitting on the periphery of the culture industry but securely within the gates of its well-compensated confines. He is concerned about what things mean for his career, a thing other people are paid to manage.
But despite its eagerness to set itself apart from ‘other New York shows,’ Master of None is anxious about identifying itself as a portrait of what the popular nomenclature calls privilege. Despite the show’s obsession with its authenticity (he cast his real parents! his real cousin! Eric Wareheim is his friend!), some specifics feel foggy, what neighborhood Dev is supposed to live in? One website claims he “seems to live in Williamsburg” while Amy Williams, the show’s set designer, claims she designed it with a “Lower East Side/East Village vibe.” In a city as identity-conscious as New York, this feels odd; tour buses veer through the streets to take us to the very brownstone stoop that led to Carrie’s apartment in Sex and the City. Master of None, instead, ceaselessly and cannily redirects our attention toward food, something people of all classes pornographically enjoy.
It’s a clever way to show how rich people live. In the American narrative idiom, rich people are bad because they have things we don’t and we assume that they must have some compensating deficiency Or at least be rude. Dev is none of these things; he just consumes copious amounts of expensive restaurant fare. Like a rapper, he portrays wealth as something aspirational and thus likable; expensive alarm clocks instead of bling. “Is Master of None more than just lifestyle porn?,” askes Anna Leszkiewicz at The New Statesman. Her answer, which the show ultimately criticizes the impeccable taste of its protagonist, is both tedious and unsatisfying. Sitcom protagonists only make choices for them to be criticized, that’s why everyone loves Homer Simpson. So what?
Instagram food porn, unlike fashion magazines, don’t affix pricetags; similarly, we rarely see Dev handed the check. This is unlike the New York of yesteryear, where the passed around check was a well-established comedy routine. Master of None shares the current New York sitcom’s anxiety over depicting money, which has become endless polite parties where we don’t ask how much anybody makes. Even shows more intent on appealing to the struggling cosmopolitan demographic, say Broad City or High Maintenance, are unsure how to talk about the cash reserves of their heroes. In the first episode of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City that aired on Comedy Central, both characters, played by Glazer and Jacobson, find themselves in a grim parody of the gig economy that has transformed urban employment into a 24-hour dystopian hell bereft of benefits. But that episode is also a cop-out, they don’t need the money to pay for rent or food or the conventionally-understood necessities. They just need a little extra for Lil Wayne tickets.
To Ansari’s credit, he tries harder. Smack in the middle of the second season is “New York, I Love You,” an episode that has gotten wide acclaim for not being about the show’s likable protagonist and, instead, is about a bunch of other likable people. “I live near Chinatown, and I was like, ‘Look at all these people,’” Ansari told Entertainment Weekly about the episode’s creative genesis. As a storyteller Ansari brings little to these people’s lives besides groan-worthy clichés (Rich people! Cheating on their spouses! Owning exotic pets! Not being nice!) and showy form-experiments worthy of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or a poor man’s Slacker. What is interesting, instead, is the episode as Ansari’s fantasy; how the show imagines the lives of others to be. The set of cab drivers, for instance, are part of a community that lives and work together and evoke, briefly and tenderly, the New York of TV screens long past. Ditto the doorman. And the bodega employee is, pointedly, depicted in a loving relationship. They are, in short, not lonely.
Dev is, and that motif weighs heavily throughout Master of None’s second season. After a painful break-up with a music publicist in the show’s first season, Dev’s attempts to find love within his social class are shown to be pitiful failures. A slew of not-Tinder dates reveals most of New York’s wealthy-enough-for-James-Murphy’s-wine-bar women to be too weird for our jocular everyman’s tastes. At the TV show that he hosts, Clash of the Cupcakes, his only constant point of a contact is a producer (Leonard Ouzts) who treats him with comic disdain. It is no coincidence the season ends with Dev cohosting another show called BFFs with a celebrity chef (Bobby Cannavale) who plays his likability with a superficial shallowness that feels menacing even before he’s revealed, in the season’s final minutes, like a pervert. Rich people!
“New York, I Love You” is adept, also, at drawing a particular line in the sand: the people behind the counter and those in front of it and the different lives that line signifies. They may coexist with Ansari in the streets of Chinatown, but he’s the one driving up the rent. Tantalizingly, while in the midst of telling us the ‘untold’ stories of service workers, its their profession he telegraphs first. We are seeing them from the eyes of their customers waiting to have work done for them; people like Dev and Arnold Baumheiser (Eric Wareheim), profession unknown. Its a complicated ethnic portrait, the people of color he follows in “New York, I Love You” bring to mind the past decade of New York working class cinema, the celebrated work of Ramin Bahrani and early Sean Baker. Both Bahrani and Baker emphasized the service economy as a step in the American immigration narrative, something that connects vaguely to the melancholy romance of a Don Bluth cartoon.
The immigration narratives that Ansari is interested in, per “Religion” from the second season and “Parents” from the first, lack the proverbial bootstraps. Dev is the child of a doctor, not a cab driver. His immigration story is, instead, about leaving a community because is no longer has anything to offer. Why bother absconding from pork if it won’t come with the social safety net of a shared community? Master of None discovers the old New York, built once of those very communities, the close-knit “tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units” of E.B. White’s imagination, to be gone. It has flattened, instead of into something that looks, like the locale of Dev’s mysterious apartment, interchangeably like the Lower East Side or Williamsburg. The realtors want to call Southern Harlem SoHa now. It’s all very real.