masters of none

‘Masters of None’: Season 2 Feminist Review

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Little Brown Feminist

Little brown feminist with a big voice.

If you haven’t watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix’s show, ‘Masters of None’ then be prepared for some spoilers in this review. Created by Ansari and Alan Yang, who both worked for the show Parks and Recreation, it’s partially based on Ansari’s real-life experiences. The second season is like the first in several of its themes; analysing family, identity, sexuality, dating and most importantly, there are some ridiculously beautiful shots of food. Prepare to be hungry after watching most of this season, particularly since we follow Ansari’s character Dev and his journey in Modena, a village in Italy. At the end of the first season, he has left New York after a difficult break up with his ex-girlfriend Rachel. He learns how to make pasta, says allora with vigour, and the audience is treated to some gorgeous black and white shots of small town Italy.

The second season carries on similar themes from the first, as the show explores the various facets that create a person’s identity. The links between family, religion, sexuality and generational gaps are delved into: Dev’s lack of piety and love for pork sparks anger and disappointment from his family, leading him to try and understand their religion better; Denise coming out to her mother, Catherine (played by the effervescent Angela Bassett) who expresses her heart breaking concerns: “it’s hard enough being a black woman in this world, now you want to add something else to that?”; Brian’s father Peter dating two different women at the same time, and his son’s amused reaction to this revelation shows a new layer to the immigrant’s life. What becomes clear watching this season, and the show’s strength overall, is the depth of representation of POC (people of colour).

All these ideas culminate brilliantly in one episode called “New York: I Love You”, which spans away from Dev and Co. to follow three separate but intersecting POC; including a doorman for an apartment complex inhabited by majority white, wealthy New Yorkers; a deaf woman who gets caught out in an intimate ASL (American Sign Language) exchange and a Rwandan cab driver who lives in a one bed apartment with three other Africans. This episode shows the variety of New Yorkers that live, work and love in the eponymous city; while telling stories that are generally forgotten or stereotyped, providing the audience a look at the humanity of people’s experiences that may not align with their own. The episode is cleverly concluded by showing the characters’ connection to the main group, portraying the surprisingly few degrees of separation between people who may never meet.

Another standout episode is “Thanksgiving”, a year by year view of Denise’s Thanksgivings with her family and Dev as their guest. The episode handles the issues of racism and misogyny, as Catherine explains to Denise and Dev when they are children: “Minorities are a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far”. A blend of real life issues that affect the black communities in the US, as well as black women, is effortlessly portrayed on-screen by the family’s conversations at the dinner table; that while serious, are never devoid of humour. There are heart breaking stories of police brutality that are then followed by a revelation of a hilarious Instagram name, which helps the show to feel grounded but still comedic. Themes of identity and sexuality are particularly poignant when Denise comes out to Catherine, who is worried for her daughter’s safety. She worries that her daughter will have trouble understanding her sexuality in a world that does not favour those with her skin tone or her gender.

masters of none
Angela Bassett, Kym Whitley, and Aziz Ansari.

With the growing awareness of the treatment black people face in the US through groups such as Black Lives Matter and Say her Name, the concern Catherine feels is all too explicable. Her eventual realisation that Denise is her own person is subtly demonstrated, and Catherine’s worry is provided a humorous buffer by her on-screen sister Joyce (played by the hilarious Kym Whitley) and partially deaf mother, Ernestine (played by the brilliant Venida Evans). There is a touching scene between Catherine and Michelle, Denise’s girlfriend, and the warmth and emotion that exudes this episode easily makes it the best of the season (IMHO).

While the second season is certainly stylishly composed; with each episode having its own themes that includes classic Italian cinema, unrequited love and familial love, it is not without flaws. One major issue I had is the shows handling of Francesca, the beautiful and charming Italian woman that Dev falls head over heels for – although this is not without obstacles, since she is engaged to her partner of ten years. Used in many ways as a prop for Dev’s lonely and frustrating lifestyle choices (he’s reluctant about his job that is extended by another 7 seasons), it is difficult not to view Francesca as a European version of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope.

Francesca is a whimsical stereotype, with the same wide-eyed curiosity and appreciation of New York that a child has in a toy store, igniting a renewed affection in Dev for the city he has always lived in. They eat pasta, dance to romantic Italian music, have a ‘pyjama party’ and joke crudely in Central Park together. We find out very little about her; she is an Art History student who was unable to pursue her dream career after her mother died, choosing to help her grandmother with her pasta shop. She’s been with her fiancée Pino for over ten years, and questions her choices when she realises she’s only ever been with one man her whole adult life.

The information we gather about Francesca involves her association with other people, specifically men, which leaves her with a seemingly shell-like existence that is used primarily as a crutch by other characters. This includes her relationship to Dev. While their chemistry is undeniable; their encounters are more focused on how Francesca makes Dev feel about himself, rather than depicting her as a well-rounded, fleshed out character. This can be arguably difficult when the show is about Dev of course, but this does not seem to be an issue for other characters in the show (Denise, Brian, Arnold, etc.) which makes you wonder why Francesca was not afforded the same courtesy.

Masters of None
Alessandra Mastronardi as Francesca.

This leads us to Dev’s problematic character growth in this season. One episode shows him dating a bevy of women, taking them to the same spots every time. When he strikes lucky, he decides to have sex with a woman even though she has a racist ‘Mammy’ jug that she keeps her condoms in, only mentioning his offence at it after. The woman makes a valid point in feeling angry that he had decided to go ahead with the sex even though he disagreed with her choice. Later in the season Dev makes Francesca feel bad about her indecisiveness, at times pushing her to confront her feelings towards him rather than attempting to understand her situation. This reflects the issues found in the first season and its attempts at feminism; while “Masters of None” is in many ways feminist, through its portrayals of characters such as Rachel (Dev’s girlfriend in the first season), Denise and many others; it has issues with mansplaining and explaining equality through male characters’ understanding. In many ways, it reflects the real life issue of having to prove the gender based problems women experience to make feminism palpable for men, and (while it may be with the best of intentions) how much weight a man’s opinion garners rather than believing a woman’s account in the first place.

Arguably, the flaws within the show (lacking substance, reducing female voice etc) can be understood through its biggest theme: loneliness. This can be evidenced in the stilted conversations within the dating scenes, or the five minutes of Dev reflecting in the back of a cab or how neither Dev nor Arnold can fully enjoy each other’s company when they share a wonderful meal during Arnold’s visit to Italy. The second season displays the characters’ use of technology like a broken bridge in attempting an emotional connection. This feeling is expressed mainly in the male characters. Peter expresses his loneliness to Brian, to explain his uncharacteristic move in seeing two different women; Arnold in his secret reason for coming to Italy to attend his ex’s wedding and lastly, Dev and his confession to Arnold of being unsure whether his attraction to Francesca is untainted by his loneliness since he broke up with Rachel. In this way, the second season can be viewed as an insight to how we conduct our relationships (whether through technology or real-life encounters) with others and ultimately how we treat the relationship we have with ourselves.

While I felt somewhat disheartened by some of the outcomes in this season, “Masters of None” is still impeccable for its overall representation of POC and their lives, clever dialogue that still rings true and portraying uncomfortable emotions on-screen that many in the audience may wish to ignore. I would highly recommend it to anyone in need of a dose of beautiful scenery, delectable shots of food and some well needed humour.