When it comes to stand-up, Aziz Ansari is one of the few comics I don't hate. His jokes aren't particularly clever or insightful or inventive or subversive, but he has this fun energy that makes his act a lot more tolerable than other stand-up. Maybe it's his high-pitched voice, or the fact that Tom Haverford is basically just Aziz Ansari himself, but dialed up a half a degree higher. Either way, all the iodine material about texting etiquette and being a second-generation Indian American from his stand-up act made it into the first season of Master of None. And you ended up with a 10-episode series, lauded by critics, that to me was a pretty full-throated indictment of the shallow, contemptible and meaningless existence that characterizes people of my generation.
That was not the point, of course, but anyone who is even remotely tuned into the basics of being a human being should have been mildly disgusted at Aziz's obsession with trendy eateries, while guffawing at his weak attempts to mine a shallow existence for meaning. For instance, he devotes an entire episode (which won an Emmy) to exploring the origins of his immigrant parents, coming away with the realization that they sacrificed a lot so he could have access to more opportunities. He understands that before he existed they came from somewhere, a place and time that, by the end of the episode, he has come to appreciate. The audience is meant to share and revel in this epiphany. But I sat there thinking, This motherfucker was so self-absorbed that he didn't give any thought to where his parents came from until he was IN HIS THIRTIES???
This crystallized my distaste for the show's first season. It is all about how someone of my generation struggles with life's challenges, trying to find some sense of happiness and contentment in the 21st century. But the problem is that it approaches these questions using vapid, superficial and selfish human beings obsessed with consumerism and ephemeral pop culture (Arnold is the absolute fucking worst example of this) as the lenses through which to explore these ideas. When they do poke their heads up out of their millennial bubbles, the things they realize are things anyone with a moral compass, some compassion and an ounce of humanity would already know. The fact that these flashes of insight are supposed to be revelatory speaks volumes to how fucked up this generation is on just a basic human level.
So when Season 2 was released, I expected more of the same. I was quickly disabused of this notion. Ansari is more confident now, as a filmmaker and as a story-teller. The first part is clear as he opens the season with a beautiful black and white homage to The Bicycle Thief. Not everything lands exactly as it should, but the filmmaking is at least fluid, striking and meaningful. With this season he is also done just mining his stand-up for low-hanging fruit and pushes deeper into some very interesting ideas, while giving many characters (but not Arnold) a personal depth and dimension that were lacking in the first season. This is most strikingly evident in three stand-out episodes.
In the season's third episode, Religion deals with Ansari's relationship to religion. He is not shy about paying lip service to his Muslim roots, pretending not to eat pork only when his parents are around. Again, I was expecting this episode to conclude with some fairly shallow observations about religion in the 21st century, or with Aziz blowing off his parents and eating pork anyway because it's what he wants to do and Heaven forbid an American ever deny themselves something that they want. But the episode zigs where it should go straight, and Aziz realizes he is being a selfish jerk. It's a small gesture for him to mildly inconvenience himself and delay gratification in order to show some respect to his mother and her roots. This is conveyed not in the head-smacking way of the previous season, but through what I thought was a pretty personal and illuminating series of conversations between the son, his father and his mother. It felt real and personal and what it had to say about being a non-observant Muslim in America was nuanced and fairly thought-provoking.
The next noteworthy episode, New York I Love You, is the best of the season. It is bold and daring, veering into experimental territory by breaking away from Ansari and following a series of short-film vignettes through New York that highlight the very kinds of people the first season went great lengths to ignore as it fetishized a soul-sucking upper class existence: door men, taxi drivers, a deaf bodega counter girl (this segment unfolds with no audio). The stylistic touches again speak to his confidence as a filmmaker, but also the fractured narrative and the decision to follow these particular threads was pure genius. It's a total repudiation of the flaws from the first season, expanding the scope and meaning of the show beyond the narrow, selfish obsession with trendy ramen places and dating apps to get at something genuinely deeper and more interesting.
New York I Love you had already convinced me that this season was something special, but then he delivers a moving personal essay that manages to capture something ineffable about both growing up and sexuality in Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is just a series of snapshots of Aziz (whose Indian-Muslim family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving) spending the holiday at his friend Denise's house. The episode tracks the two of them as they move through adolescence, teendom and finally up to the present by checking in on them every few years at Thanksgiving.
Over the course of the episode, Denise's homosexuality becomes increasingly difficult to conceal, and the episode deftly shows how she breaks the news to her family, how they take it, and how even though they may have some issues grappling with it, family is still family, each in its own unique way but embedded within something we can all understand. This episode is funny, personal and moving, opening and closing with a gorgeous overhead shot of family praying at the dinner table before eating. It also adds a critical layer to Denise, who no longer seems like she was produced by a Millennial Mannequin Factory according to a template for Extreme Minority Stereotype. It is a beautiful episode of television.
The show still suffers from a romantic narrative arc that is useless and boring. But it has grown immeasurably from the first season, diving into issues of real substance in a way that is meaningful and personal and insightful. It is a funny show, and the filmmaking itself has jumped up in confidence and skill by several letter grades. But most importantly, it has moved beyond the shallow observations of the first season and delivered a true twist - that it's main character is not an irredeemable asshole flag-bearer for the Gameboy Generation, but an actual human being dealing with the complicated shit storm of life in a way that other actual human beings can relate to. Maybe there is hope for my generation after all.