In the penultimate episode of Master of None’s second season, Dev (Aziz Ansari) invites his newly engaged friend, Francesca (Allesandra Mastronardi), to a late dinner. Dev’s romantic feelings toward Francesca are revealed to us through longing glances and lingering physical contact that betray a yearning beneath the evening’s platonic pretense. Suspense sets in when the pair learns they might not be seated before the kitchen closes, and Dev’s romantic fantasy is threatened by the routine machinations of the restaurant. The sequence is a microcosm of the series itself, which packages the anxieties of its protagonists within quotidian struggles that act as a universal language. The restaurant’s unaccommodating host imbues the dinner with a sense of realism that heightens the tragedy of Dev’s hopeless affection for his friend.
Master of None employs the vocabulary of unreserved tables and unreturned texts to tell classic stories of existential ennui and unrequited love. But references to Uber and WiFi provide more than window-dressing. This new season sharpens its focus when commenting on the modern idiosyncrasies of Dev’s life. While the first season kept its gaze primarily on the relationship between Dev and Noel Wells’s Rachel, the second features a number of self-contained episodes that are essentially extended vignettes, investigating Dev’s universe but only tangentially related to the season’s overall narrative. These diversions are among the most imaginative and insightful episodes of the season, and provide a balance to the series that was previously missing. Cultural commentary is no longer incidental to romance comedy.
This equilibrium is perfected in “First Date,” which mirrors the mechanics of app-based dating by flashing through a series of unfulfilling dates between Dev and the women he meets. The episode examines the insubstantial connections forged by “swiping right” on Tinder and similar apps, and lampoons a series of dating types—the self-obsessed, the serial-daters, the over-enthusiastic—that feel curated for an audience with their own catalogue of lame Tinder stories. Timeliness and imaginative direction give the episode a distinctly modern sensibility. But Dev’s disenchantment isn’t unique to the era of app-based romance. It’s only intensified by the sheer number of choices available at his fingertips, each less stimulating than the last.
Dev’s disillusionment is the defining focus of Master of None. His malaise is unspecific and pervasive, spilling into every aspect of his life. He doesn’t so much sit on his couch as he melts into it, idly cycling through social media feeds like someone convinced of the inferiority of the present. Dev’s sabbatical in Italy at the end of season one was a logical response to his struggle, an authentic reprieve from his overstimulated and hyper-mediated New York life. Season two brings him back to the Big Apple, though, and he quickly reassumes his hangdog posture, certain once more that he’s missing out on whatever panacea the happy people around him have discovered.
This belief informs Dev’s relationship with his parents, whom he treats with a mix of awe and exasperation. In “Door No. 3,” he relates to his doctor father, Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari), the fear that his television career will never be as fulfilling as a medical practice. In “Religion,” Dev treats his parents’ abstention from pork like a curiosity from an era with none of the food festivals, restaurant openings, and Instagram accounts that tempt him each day. He imagines that Islam requires less of his parents, because they have fewer material possibilities to sacrifice; he assumes they live in blissful ignorance. Dev is granted an array of everyday comforts and options that his folks never enjoyed, but he views those features of modernity as curses, not blessings. His parents represent the same ideal represented by Italy in season one: a life free of important choices and meaningless choices that become exhausting.
Eventually, Dev glimpses the truth: Ramesh’s career can be just as tedious as his own, and religious lapses upset his parents mainly because they fear they may have stopped reaching their son. They haven’t discovered a secret, or forcibly wrung happiness from their predetermined lives. Their own struggles are simply overlooked by Dev while he grapples with an anxiety he imagines to be unique to his age set: choose one life and all other paths will close.
That particular anxiety is the crux of Master of None. Dev’s dissatisfaction is recognizable even when it isn’t understandable; his hurdles are common, and his heartbreaks resonate. His dinner with Francesca is sad and cringe-worthy because even as conversation sparkles between the two, we can see how Dev’s foolhardy crush will end. Dev, though, is a victim of his own nature. He’s unable to choose a restaurant without considering every option, and even less equipped to choose a life partner. The dinner reflects his indecisiveness: He appears to be falling in love with his friend, but other evidence suggests that his feelings are a consequence of Francesca being a rare option that’s unavailable to him. In many ways, it’s more convenient for Dev to pine after one closed door than decide between the multitude that remain open.