tv review

Master of None’s Third Season Is Slowly But Surely Gratifying

Subtitled Moments in Love, this season of Master of None turns its focus from dating to long-term relationships, in a five-episode arc dedicated to Denise (Lena Waithe) and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The third season of Master of None likes to linger. Its five episodes spend extended periods of time on everyday activities: the folding of laundry, the unmaking of a bed, the sight of characters gazing wistfully out of windows. One episode opens with a shot of Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, eating a burger in a parked car for a minute and a half. Its unhurriedness is one of several things that distinguish this season, written by Waithe and series co-creator Aziz Ansari, from the ones that preceded it. While the first two seasons, which dropped in 2015 and 2017, primarily focused on Ansari’s character Dev, this one is all about Denise and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). Subtitled Moments in Love, it’s incredibly moving at times as it traces the arc of the two women’s relationship over a series of years and rocky moments, with Dev only popping in occasionally to help tether these installments to those that came before.

The previous iterations of this Netflix series could rightly be described as comedies: there were laugh-out-loud moments in most episodes involving Dev’s dating life, his parents, or his mishaps in Italy. (See the season two episode when he and his friend Arnold get their tiny Italian rental car stuck in a narrow alley.) The humor was character-driven and observational, with a rom-com-like interest in how it feels when love is in its early stages.

The new season maintains that character-driven, observational ethos but leans more forcefully toward drama. Instead of new love, this season examines partnerships that are already well in progress. Relationships are work, and those long takes of banal activities reflect that. Sometimes being married really does mean sitting behind the steering wheel, messy burger in hand, with no one in the passenger’s seat.

It’s impossible to talk about the show’s new approach without acknowledging what has happened in Ansari’s personal life since the prior season. In 2018, the now-defunct website ran a story about an anonymous photographer who said that Ansari had coerced her into engaging in sexual acts during a date. Ansari released a statement after the article was published saying that he was surprised to hear she had been uncomfortable but that he “took her words to heart.” Then he laid low for a while; he has since said he feared his career would be derailed by the incident. In his eventual stand-up sets, including his 2019 Netflix special Right Now, Ansari addressed the matter, saying, “It made me think about a lot, and I hope I’ve become a better person.”

The third season of Master of None doesn’t explicitly allude to this situation, but it certainly feels like an indication that Ansari has reflected on the fallout from that article. Without making a big to-do about it, Ansari, who directed all five episodes of season three, opted to largely remove himself from the narrative of the show he co-created with Alan Yang, instead foregrounding a story about two Black women. If actions speak louder than words, that creative shift says a lot.

Admittedly, some things are missed in this renewed version. Waithe’s Denise has always been a more low-key presence than Ansari’s animated Dev. Her chillness, while appealing, can sometimes make the show feel low-energy, especially when coupled with the measured pacing of the episodes. The first one, which introduces us to the world Denise and Alicia occupy—their beautiful, rustic rural home outside of New York City—clocks in at almost an hour; there are parts where you can really feel those minutes. But that is the point. Waithe and Ansari are trying to capture real life, and if we’ve learned anything about real life during the past year, it’s that it can feel endless, fraught, and mundane all at once.

Happily, Ackie, the British actress from Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World, brings a warmth and depth to her portrayal of Alicia that works symbiotically with Waithe’s mellowness. In their scenes, it is obvious that Alicia is the yin that spoons perfectly with Denise’s yang. The happiness they bring each other shines through in small moments, like their mini-dance party to “Everybody, Everybody” in front of their washing machine. But when Alicia expresses a desire to have a child, it raises complications that suggest maybe they don’t nestle as snugly together as they thought.

The show’s detail-oriented sensibility pays off when it switches focus to Alicia in a later episode, tracing her journey through fertility treatments. We watch her face in close-up as she listens to a doctor explain how expensive IVF is and how couples in same-sex relationships usually aren’t covered by insurance. We observe in close-up the boxes of injectable hormones on Alicia’s counter, which magnify her fears about administering that first shot. When she reaches a low point, we see her yank herself up again by sitting in her doctor’s office in a jewel-toned blouse, her hair teased out and her hoop earrings extremely on-point, while she tells that (female) doctor, “I’m a bad bitch. And you’re going to be a bad bitch with me.” Ackie is a terrific, sturdy anchor in this extraordinary episode of television, one of the best that both Master of None and the year 2021 has produced.

While this season of the show argues that the things that matter in life — having a partner, having a child, building a fulfilling career — require effort and determination, it doesn’t fully invest in the concept of monogamy. Instead, it wrestles with that throughout, and its conclusions are ambiguous, which is not surprising given the creative interests of Ansari and Waithe (the latter is also developing a series for Amazon about non-monogamous marriages). But the one thing that these five episodes are sure of is that life, as monotonous as it can sometimes be, also contains great joy. Master of None is determined to make us stop and take the time to notice that.

Master of None Season 3 Is Slowly But Surely Gratifying