"Low-Key Dramatic" (part 2)

In season 3 of Master of None, Aziz Ansari steps back. Lena Waithe and Naomi Ackie step up. And a big, wry dramedy turns inward.

This is part 2 in a series on well-established authors and showrunners who have recently moved beyond their signature style. Last week I argued that, in her latest novel Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri has reined in her signature motif—extroverted depictions of the interconnectedness of the global and the personal—and instead opted for a sort of impressionistic minimalism. That article can be found here. This follow-up will discuss a similar shift in season 3 of Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe’s Master of None.

Aziz Ansari first established his career by portraying status-obsessed (but overall decent guy) Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, one of the most earnestly brilliant post-ironic sitcoms in a late 2000s television scene that was full of earnestly brilliant post-ironic sitcoms. Ansari continued his career as a stand-up, and then evolved into the creative force behind Master of None, a show that, in the vein of Seinfeld, blurs the ontological line between Ansari the performer and Dev, the character he portrays. In both venues, his persona is that of a complexly thoughtful, self-aware, and self-deprecating pop-culture obsessive.

Like Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous work, Ansari’s has been characterized by “bigness.” Even his character in Parks & Rec was a wannabe media entrepreneur who took everything to extremes. The character’s first business venture—the actual function of which was never made totally clear—was called Entertainment 720, a name choice that would seem to suggest that they do and encompass everything (twice, apparently). A promotional video that he and his co-owner create is an exercise in garish absurdity. When forced to go camping with co-workers, he raises the art of “glamping” to a level both preposterous and kind of fun-looking.

Ansari’s stand-up, meanwhile, is periodically marked by surreal detours into bombastic performance. His overall persona, at least until recently, has been a semi-ironic embodiment of a millennial nurtured by and within the ceaseless, clout-chasing, “go big or go home” ethos of the social media influencer.

Season 3 of Master of None bids farewell to all that. On the level of form and characterization, it is a study in quiet simplicity. But while Lahiri’s Whereabouts dramatizes the complex and contradictory nature of human desire without introducing a high-stakes, gut-wrenching emotional conflict, Master of None is unwilling to sacrifice drama on the altar of austere minimalism.

Instead, it embraces both, and compromises on neither. It is, simply, the most disciplined piece of narrative television you will see this year. But this discipline does not undermine the rawness of its content, a rawness that applies both to the bleak and the sentimental. It makes melodramas that go straight for the emotional jugular, aided by soundtracks with songs like the ubiquitously pathos-stoking “Hallelujah,” seem limp and boring by comparison.

It’s difficult to speculate about the reasoning behind this dramatic shift. It could be that this was simply an inevitable trajectory. Master of None was always a deceptively challenging show, and season 2 felt more stripped-down than season 1; not to mention that its premiere was an homage to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a classic of glacially-paced post-war European cinema. It could be that the introspection that Ansari very publicly engaged in after being accused of of sexual misconduct evolved naturally into a more introspective tendency in his work. It could be the influence of collaborator Lena Waithe, who co-wrote this season with him.

All of these explanations seem likely, but certainly one of the most noteworthy things about this season is that Ansari barely appears in it. Seasons 1 and 2 were emphatic vehicles for his brand of “charming but flawed single guy in Manhattan has romantic escapades, grows up a bit, and indulges in witty banter with small circle of friends” narrative, but this season relegates him to a third-tier character with almost no bearing on the storyline.

Instead, the narrative is handed off to a secondary character from previous seasons, Denise (Waithe), who is now a New York Times bestselling author living quietly in an impeccably-appointed house upstate with her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). In episode 4, the narrative is handed off to Alicia herself, an episode in which Ackie performs what may be the standout scene of the entire season, a single-shot tour de force in which she tries to work up the nerve to self-administer an IVF hormone injection.

But to back up a bit: the first half of the first episode fully embraces art-house aesthetics, in particular the long takes, banal actions, and sense of “everyday-ness” that characterize Italian Neorealism and much of early French New Wave. A static camera captures Denise’s and Alicia’s decidedly undramatic day-to-day lives as they work, cook, go to bed, and do laundry.

There is not so much as a hint of conflict, or even plot, until Dev (Ansari) and his girlfriend Reshmi (Aysha Kala) arrive for a small dinner party that goes sideways as the two hash out a litany of relationship tensions in front of their deeply uncomfortable hosts. But then . . . they leave. And Denise and Alicia resume their bucolic, seemingly easygoing lives as the episode returns to an even keel.

But the tension that Dev brought to their domestic space lingers, and the remainder of the episode slowly peels away the façade of Absolutely-Everything-Is-Fine that seemed to characterize the first half. In the final scene of this almost hour-long episode, the two negotiate a conflict so emotionally raw, and say things so damning, that you will wonder, as the final elegiac shot cuts to the credits, how their marriage can possibly survive.

In other words, Ansari and co-writer Waithe pull a brilliant trick on the viewer’s expectations. A triple trick, actually: The season 3 pilot first departs dramatically and unapologetically from the snappy romance-and-city-life humor of older episodes, making viewers wonder if they’re really even watching the same show. Then it drops the show’s producer and most recognizable character, Dev, into a peaceful setting, presumably to shake things up and bring back the tenor of previous Master of None seasons with his histrionic and clearly toxic-as-hell relationship—only to yank them right back out and return to the central couple, as if to chide us: “sorry, no cheap and obvious drama allowed.”

But then, finally, it gives us a desperately dramatic scene at the end, as if now to remind us that conflict and emotional rawness are indeed permitted, but that in the real world those things seldom resemble the kind of witty banter produced by television writers. The Dev and Reshmi argument feels like a comic opera. At one point, belittling Reshmi’s small business idea, Dev says, with the buh-dum-tsh timing of a standup comedian, that every time Reshmi claims to be “working kinks out of the business model” she’s actually just been “working on a cheap magnum of Chardonnay.”

The boiled-over tension that we finally encounter later between Denise and Alicia, by contrast, feels agonizingly real. It concludes when Alicia levels a long-repressed accusation at Denise. The accusation is simply “You were relieved!Of course, this is mundane and uninteresting out of context. But in context, trust me, it hangs in the air emanating a brutal certainty: There’s no way to unsay it.

And again, what’s so remarkable is that this sense of realness is accomplished with such cinematographic restraint. Almost every scene of the season is a single take. Characters walk out of frame in the middle of conversations, the camera stubbornly remaining in its initial position. In one much-talked-about scene in episode 2—one critic described it as the moment they almost decided to stop watching—we watch Denise, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, eating a hamburger in real-time while a morose Erik Satie song plays. That is, needless to say, an insane amount of time to watch a character eat a hamburger with absolutely nothing else going on. It makes you realize how frequently everyday actions, when depicted in visual narrative, are truncated or performed simultaneously alongside some kind of exposition. We accept that fictional characters have to do banal things; it’s part of our investment in the realness of the fiction. But most approaches to narrative assume that we do not want to see those things occur in their entirety. Time-lapse montages with upbeat pop songs exist for a reason.

But then Denise goes inside, and the reason that she ate that burger in the car becomes gradually clear. And the reason is sad. The reason is linked intimately with the decay of her and Alicia’s marriage. And so we realize that, although the fact that she ate a burger could have been accomplished in a three-second take, rather than a three-minute one, Ansari’s insistence on showing the whole thing isn’t mere art house pretension. It’s a thesis statement about human nature. Even the most insignificant-seeming actions can be loaded with significance. The lingering camera makes this point, even if we don’t fully understand it in the moment, and might even be annoyed by it, before the bleak payoff reaffirms it.

It’s daunting to see such a broadly comic and approachable writer/producer/director/performer instead take such a minimalist, art-house approach to an established product. Master of None’s first two seasons were critically and commercially successful, and more of the same likely would have succeeded as well, but Ansari indicated that he simply had nothing left to say about the exploits of a thirtysomething guy in New York City. Watching season 3, I lost track of how many times I thought something more overtly dramatic was going to happen or that some hackneyed scenario would unfold, only to realize that whatever I was envisioning would be a profound betrayal of what Ansari has clearly set out to do. For instance, after a harrowing but hopeful medical procedure, Alicia tells her doctor she doesn’t have anyone to take her home and will get a Lyft. The scene cuts to her getting into a car outside the hospital, and I instinctively wondered what the driver’s role would be. Would he harass her? Offer some profound insight? Be a goofball in order to break the emotional tension of the episode with some comic relief?

None of the above. He drives her home, and that’s it. It’s a testament to how conditioned we are to expect every development in a narrative to introduce some new tidbit of tension or entertainment. It’s just a Lyft ride. It’s not Chekhov’s Lyft Ride.

*****

All of this is not terribly different from what Lahiri set out to do in Whereabouts. She and Ansari have moved on from the ponderous, easily-satisfying, commercially-viable work that made them rich and successful, that put them in the enviable position of publishing houses and streaming services having such confidence in their creativity that they are pretty much given carte blanche to go ahead and create whatever they want, whenever they want.

A meandering, impressionistic, Woolfian novel in 2021? Not what typically tops bestseller lists.

A miniseries that essentially amounts to a three-hour film, and that requires a viewer not only to sit through lengthy scenes in which almost nothing happens, but to tolerate a visual style reminiscent of auteurs from De Sica to Yasujirō Ozu to Michael Haneke? Not what typically inspires Netflix binge-watching.

But clearly, Lahiri and Ansari both wanted to move forward with challenging work that seems custom-made to make critics raise an eyebrow and say “Well, this is certainly different!” And whether it’s a reaction to the isolation most of us have experienced during the pandemic, or to the ceaseless noise of the Culture War, or to some artistic or personal turmoil experienced by the author, or simply a coincidence, they have also both created masterworks of introverted solitude and deliberate—if also ambivalent—disconnection from the discord of modern life.

These stories are not so much dramatic as they are, as my students would put it, “low-key dramatic.” They wisely offer the epiphany that, quite often, the most wrenching and consequential drama unfolds quietly.