Aziz Ansari is a bird, soaring over the cultural and generational landscape, alighting here and there on this perch or that, telling us what he sees. In some of his earlier stand-up comedy he would also try to weigh in on what it meant, dishing out his analysis on race, social media, adulthood and, his greatest obsession, millennial romance.
This color commentary could be funny or even interesting, but it tended to lack real profundity. An extended riff on people who get married after only a year and a half of dating (“A year and a half? Is that enough time to get to know someone to know you want to spend the rest of your life with them? I’ve had sweaters for a year and a half and I was like ‘What the f*** was I doing with this sweater?’”) got laughs, but seemed a bit narrow. But hey, he was a lot younger then. He was just doing the best he could.
But these days, Ansari’s growing less interested in the analysis and more interested in simply seeing. And when it comes to seeing, Ansari is a rare talent.
The first season of his Master of None, which he created with his friend and fellow writer Alan Yang, showcased a lovely, quiet cadence. This decade has been oversaturated with TV shows about aimless young men failing forward into adulthood, so it’s saying something that Ansari’s show still felt like something special. His character, a struggling NYC actor named Dev, wasn’t adorkable or a horndog or any of the broad character tropes trotted out for these kind of shows. He was just a guy—a little poor, a little smooth, a little whiny. He was a nice guy with a few rough patches. His struggles felt universal because they felt intensely personal. And in that context, the show didn’t offer observations so much as simple observings—holding up bits and pieces of contemporary life for unfiltered inspection.
And in the second season, which came out on Netflix this past weekend, Ansari returns with a fresh ease and confidence both behind and in front of the camera. Picking up where the last season left off, Dev has been living in rural Italy for three months, learning how to make pasta. His Italian is coming along, his pasta making a little less so, and while he enjoys the slower pace of life, there aren’t quite enough available women around. He’s making friends, he’s picking up new routines and he’s settling into a confidence that allows him to get back to some of the meatier questions of his existence: What do I really want?
More than most writers his age, Ansari truly feels like a digital native. He has a knack for incorporating iPhones, Twitter and Facebook in a way that doesn’t feel like a gimmick, but a natural extension of how his subjects relate to one another. While most 20- and 30-somethings in modern television feel like they were sketched by someone fact checking their depictions against a Pew Research Study on what those crazy millennials are up to, Ansari’s characters feel as natural as breathing. You half expect to see them sitting next to you after the credits roll.
But Ansari’s also got a creative eye turned toward the past. He styles the episodes after selections from classic Italian cinema, from the black-and-white neorealism of The Bicycle Thieves to the formal revelry of Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte. The first two episodes featured expertly handled set dressing and showcase Ansari’s growing palette of cinematic tricks (and returning co-star Eric Wareheim, Comedy Central’s one-time absurdist funnyman who has lately shown himself to be a pretty savvy director) but it’s episode three where Ansari starts front-loading his headier ideas.
The episode is called “Religion” and it features the return of Dev’s mom and dad (played by Ansari’s real-life parents), who ask him to pretend to still be a practicing Muslim as a show for visiting relatives. Dev abides, and this launches conversations with his own friends and their various strains of faith. His younger cousin (also Ansari’s real-life cousin, Harris Gani. Aziz is a real family man), an aspiring model, gives a breakdown of his own religious beliefs that sound more or less like most millennials’ level of religious engagement: “I believe in God, I do parts of Islam, I give to charity, I try not to be too materialistic, but there’s definitely parts I can’t keep up with.” Dev introduces him to pork because, truly, Ansari finds a way to work food into every episode like Michael Bay working a skyscraper explosion into every Transformers movie.
But trouble lands when Dev’s parents learn that he has taken to eating pork, initiating a blow-out argument. “Why can’t I have my interpretation [of Islam] where I’m just nice and eat pork?” Dev argues. His parents aren’t impressed.
Not every religion in America has the same cultural stigma as Islam (as Dev points out, practicing Islam for him often means getting “called a terrorist”), but anyone who grew up religious can relate to a slowly shifting interpretation of that faith in a way that may create strain in the family. Sometimes, it’s a whole-throated abdication of the faith. But it can also just mean a different theological spin on alcohol, egalitarianism or politics.
The episode closes, not with a resolution, but an acknowledgement. As Dev’s father explains, the problem they have with Dev’s evolving view of the faith they raised him in doesn’t have to do with following or not following specific interpretations of the Quran, but with respect. “When you act like this, we feel like we failed you,” he says sadly. It’s a powerfully human moment that cuts through the doctrinal dispute to something much more intimate.
It brings up more questions than answers, too. What is our obligation to the religion of our parents? How often and when are we justified in defying the ways we were raised when that defiance comes from deeply felt conviction? Ansari doesn’t say, but giving pat answers isn’t a part of Master of None’s deal. It lingers in the tensions, unfolding the little contradictions and struggles of modern life at an easy pace.
A lesser show might have ended with Ansari begrudgingly going to a mosque with his parents, or even a short, conciliatory conversation in which both generations agreed to try to learn from each other. This episode closes instead on Dev going to brunch while his parents attend daily prayer. There’s a little divide in their respective lives now but, notably, they’re both still living in community with people who love and understand them. Is that enough?
For Dev and his parents, it will have to be. For the rest of us? Well, as noted earlier, we’re all just doing the best we can.
The episode carries a unique power all to its own, but it’s indicative of the series. Ansari is interested in connections, be they familial, romantic, casual or even internal. Master of None explores the way we maintain our connections, fail to or think we’ve maintained them but are actually failing. That’s relevant to any era, but Ansari rightly notes that the millennial gulf is being stretched in unique ways. He’s diagnosed the problem—but not the solution. That’s what comes of being a master of none.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's executive editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.