Monday, May 29, 2017

Master of None Season 2, Episodes 3, 4, and 5, "Religion," "First Date," and "The Dinner Party"

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve seen so far of season two of Master of None, and my enjoyment is exemplified very well by a trio of early episodes. One of the things I like the most about this show is how it addresses subjects that are often not addressed by other television shows, and that it does so in an offhanded, almost casual manner. Season one’s “Parents” is a good example: it’s about how first generation Americans shouldn’t take for granted the sacrifices their parents made to raise their families in America. This topic isn’t addressed in a didactic or moralistic manner, but is simply rumination on how the life experiences of each generation differ, based on where they were raised, and refreshingly, offers both the perspectives of the kids and their parents.

Season two continues this observational, occasionally insightful, laid-back approach to a myriad of everyday topics. Episode three focuses on religion, particularly how to negotiate secularism with the religious beliefs of your parents/upbringing. Even though Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, is a first generation Indian-American Muslim, the episode immediately makes this topic universal by beginning with a series of scenes instantly recognizable to anyone raised in even a moderately religious household: children of various religions – Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even Scientologists – protesting being forced by their parents to attend religious services.

The episode concerns Dev revealing to his religious aunt and uncle that he eats pork and doesn’t celebrate a lot of their customs, and the conflict this creates between Dev and his parents. And just like with “Parents” in season one, “Religion” presents both Dev and his parents’ perspectives in an evenhanded manner. Dev rightly asserts that he’s an adult and can make these decisions for himself, and that he can come up with his own interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim and still be a good person. On the other hand, his father Ramesh explains that Dev’s decisions make them feel like they’ve failed him, and that while Dev is free to live his life as he sees fit, it would be nice of him not to flaunt in front of them decisions that he knows bothers them. 

So far so good, but the episode elevates to sublime territory in its last few minutes, when it crosscuts back and forth between his parents attending services at a mosque, and Dev meeting his friends at a wine bar, all scored to the soothing sounds of Bobby Charles’s “I Must Be In A Good Place Now.” After the service at the mosque concludes, Ramesh goes around the room, hugging and shaking hands with his friends while Dev’s mother Nisha talks with her friends. This is crosscut with Dev doing the exact same thing, just in a different venue, surrounding a different ritual (wine tasting). The parallel is crystal clear: both generations find their own ways of existing in the world, ones that are comfortable and fulfilling for them. Dev carries on the social components of his cultural upbringing, if not the religious ones. It’s a fitting literalization of the Koran quote Dev texts to his mother just before the start of this scene: “To you be your religion, and to me my religion.” And considering the reverence with which food and drink are treated on this series, it's not an overstatement to call wine tasting (or pork-eating, or pasta making) a religious experience for Dev.

Episode four, “First Date,” introduces Dev to the world of online dating. The episode starts off with a (figurative) bang, accurately depicting the odd times and places people use dating apps: at the grocery, in a cab, at a funeral, and yes, even on the toilet. The casual settings in which people look for dates is then matched by their cavalier attitude toward their potential suitors. It’s a bit of a shock to see these random characters reject Dev’s profile less than a second after it appears in the app. We know him well, yet to these characters, he’s just a random stranger they’ve already dismissed within seconds of seeing him.

The episode also uses editing to achieve some nice effects. The cold open montage of women liking or disliking Dev’s dating profile builds to a funny punch-line when a woman makes fun of Dev’s profile with her friends, only to have one of her friends force a match with him, expertly undercutting Dev’s subsequent excitement over the notification that he's matched with someone.

More impressive, however, is that the editing in the rest of the episode smoothly cuts back and forth between the many different dates Dev goes on. The editing works well, and the transitions are sometimes surprising, because Dev takes all of these women on the same version of a date, thus it can seamlessly cut back and forth between them, swapping out one woman for another.

This intercutting accomplishes many things at once. For one, it speaks to the exciting diversity of online dating; Dev meets many women over the course of the episode, all of whom are wildly different. The editing here is crucial for highlighting their differences. A good example occurs early on, when Dev has conversations with two women of respectively low and high social intelligence. The former goes into too much unsolicited detail about a professional wrestling match, failing to register both Dev’s ignorance of the subject and his subsequent attempt to make a joke about it. This exchange is then cut together with a different woman asking Dev a question that draws explicit attention to her high social intelligence, one which will lead to an interesting topic of conversation: “Can I ask you a question that you might find a little offensive?”

At the same time, the editing also speaks to the monotony of online dating: you go through different versions of the same topics of conversation over and over. Sometimes you enjoy the process with the right partner, but other times you wonder how on earth your date manages to exist in the world given their obvious social dysfunctions (as with the wrestling fan). The episode conveys this through some nice comedic turns by Dev’s wacky dates, but also, once again, through editing. Dev’s fixed plan for his date night starts at a wine at a bar, then if the date goes well, a walk to another nearby rooftop bar. However, not all of Dev’s dates make it this far; the number that do is gradually whittled down, and we see the funny things that rule them out, like being rude to the waitstaff at the first bar, or swiping through other matches on a dating app right in front of Dev.

In the end, the episode emphasizes the monotony of the whole experience: Dev comes home from another ultimately disappointing date, only to discover he’s been matched with two more women. Rather than excited, however, he’s exhausted, since he knows he’s likely to go through the same sort of encounters he’s just had. It’s a down beat with which to end the episode, considering the relatively high number of successful couples who actually end up in relationships through online dating (see Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance for statistics). Ultimately, then, the episode (and the editing) speaks to the idea that online dating is a numbers game: you need to meet a lot of different people in order to find one with whom you feel a connection. It doesn’t work until suddenly, it does.

Episode five, “The Dinner Party,” spends considerable time on Dev’s professional life as host of the fictional reality show Clash of the Cupcakes, and we meet his boss, producer and celebrity chef “Chef Jeff,” but the episode is mainly interesting for continuing the trials and travails of Dev’s love life. The interest here is two-pronged. First, it follows up on the events of the previous episode by having Dev go on a second date with Priya, one of the women from “First Date.” If online dating is like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” writ large, then Priya is the one who seemed "just right" last episode: they got along well, showed interest in one another, and even made out a little during the cab ride home. However, this episode tells another story that is seldom seen on television: the bad second date.

Of course, nothing catastrophic happens: no one is held up at gun point; no one accidentally burns down a restaurant; no ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends interrupt the evening. This isn’t a hoary Hollywood comedy version of a bad date (moreover, in Hollywood, such dates are usually first dates, not second dates). Instead, it’s simply another deft, understated depiction of how you can have chemistry with someone on a first date, only to have it evaporate completely on the second. What was at first easy conversation turns into teeth-pulling, and Dev and Priya try and fail to connect on a variety of different topics. The editing here also does a nice job of conveying how disappointing this is for Dev by cutting back and forth between Dev excitedly describing his plans for the evening to a friend beforehand with the unexciting and awkward reality of the date itself.

The failure of his romance with Priya leads to the second interesting development: he invites his Italian friend Francesca -- whom we met in the first two episodes of the season set in Italy -- to a fancy dinner party hosted by Chef Jeff, and they realize they're developing romantic feelings for one another (although Dev's feelings are more heavily emphasized). This part of the episode is interesting because it explores what it’s like to start to fall for someone unavailable; Francesca is in a committed relationship with her Italian boyfriend Pino.

Unlike other subjects that Master of None deals with, a character pining after an unavailable romantic partner is well-trodden territory, as it tends to create pathos. However, Master of None sells it well. Not only is Francesca adorable in her state of wonder over New York (she's visiting for a few days), but she’s also a stark contrast with all of the bad dates we’ve seen Dev go on these past two episodes. He and Francesca have an easy rapport: they laugh at each others’ jokes, and just are generally on the same wavelength.

John Legend is one of the guests at Chef Jeff's party, and at the host's request he's coaxed into serenading the other guests. It's during his song that Dev and Francesca first entertain romantic feelings for one another: a friendly mutual smile lingers (first image), and then a flash of recognition of what they just felt washes over their faces as they look away (second image), with Francesca looking back at Dev for a moment as if seeing him in a new light (third image). It’s a nicely understated performative moment for both Ansari and Alessandra Mastronardi. Even the music seems to comment on their attraction: John Legend croons about not being able to help the feelings he’s having.

Later, Chef Jeff proves himself to be an astute observer, correctly warning Dev to watch out for his feelings for Francesca because loving someone unavailable is a path to heartbreak. Despite Dev’s somewhat guarded responses to Francesca earlier in the evening (like when she tells him she misses him in Modena), he seems to fully feel the weight of his burgeoning attraction in the cab ride home. After dropping Francesca off at her hotel, he gets a cute text from her mimicking a line he told her about earlier in the episode, and then we’re treated to a two-minute long take of Dev weighing his feelings for her. He seems resigned that nothing good is going to come from them, but also that he can’t really do much to prevent them. It’s a nice moment from Aziz Ansari.

I’m interested to see where this romance is headed; given that season one ended with a very unconventional dissolution of Dev’s romance with Rachel, I don’t anticipate a conventional ending to this plot arc either. Perhaps this story will turn out to be yet another of the kind you don’t usually see on television, that of learning to develop emotional safeguards against having romantic feelings for people who are already in relationships.

Other thoughts:

- The first episode of season two pays homage to a famous Italian Neorealist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948), sometimes recreating scenes from the film beat for beat. It’s an appropriate film for Master of None to pay tribute to, considering that the show is committed to addressing unconventional subject matter (or addressing it in an unconventional way), just as The Bicycle Thieves and other Italian Neorealist films were committed to breaking with conventional dramaturgy in an attempt at greater realism.

- I find it charming that Aziz Ansari has cast his real-life parents as Dev's fictional parents, particularly hid dad, who is certainly more comfortable on camera than this mother. However, as fun as they are, I was relieved to see Dev’s aunt, uncle, and cousin played by actors, who of course seem much more naturalistic than Ansari’s parents.* Moreover, my relief came as somewhat of a surprise; not only had I gotten used to Mr. and Mrs. Ansari’s stiffness, but I also seem to have incorporated it into my understanding of their characters’ traits, and then assumed that it was something inherent to Dev’s extended family (Aziz Ansari himself has improved his performance from last year as well).

* Evidently Aziz's real cousin actually plays his cousin here, adding a reflexive twist to Ramesh's suggestion that Dev help his cousin break into show business.

- This is not a show to watch on an empty stomach. I made the mistake of starting to write about episode three without eating dinner, but had to stop to eat around halfway through, when Dev and his cousin go to town at the barbeque festival. Nearly every episode features characters moaning over how delicious their food is. Once again food/drink = Dev's religion.

- I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed the editing in “First Date.” The first time the episode cuts from one date to another is extra-smooth, courtesy of a match on action: Dev opens the door to the bar for his date, Christine, and in the next shot he finishes entering into the bar with a different woman, Diana. As the dates progress, more often we intercut between dates through shot/reverse shot: we see his date in one shot, cut to Dev to see him react or to ask a question, and then cut back to the reverse shot of a different date. Yet another tactic the episode employs: a rapid series of shots of women all responding to the same question about how many siblings they have. Later on the same thing happens for a discussion of the creepy behavior of some men on dating apps.

- As fun as it can be to date different kinds of people, the episode also subscribes to the idea that you might have the best chance with someone who is from the same cultural background as you: Priya and Dev connect over being Indian American. However, the awkwardness of their second date in episode five reveals that shared background will only get you so far.

- Another nice touch: in "First Date," as Dev walks with his dates from the first bar to the rooftop bar, the editing is masked by a series of whip pans to the events happening around Dev and his dates. It’s another representation of the idea that these dates all kind of blur together.

- I dig the music on this show. Gotta keep Shazam handy each time I watch.

- Interestingly, Clash of the Cupcakes first seemed like the perfect gig for Dev when he returned from Italy, as it combines his love of food with his acting career. However, episode five reveals that it’s not the ideal job it seemed; Dev seems annoyed by one of his lazy producers, and by the show's guest judges. At least he likes Chef Jeff.

- Interesting cinematography in "The Dinner Party" when Francesca and Dev walk through a big hall in the Brooklyn Museum together: all extremely distant shots or telephoto lenses. Very atypical for this show.

- “The Dinner Party” refers both to the party Dev and Francesca go to, as well as to the famous art installation by Judy Chicago that Dev and Francesca see in the Brooklyn Museum. As someone who enjoys his time in an art museum, I was disappointed by Dev’s cavalier attitude toward Chicago’s piece. Come on Dev, be worthy of the art around you, and more importantly, be worthy of Francesca. At least she chastises him for his attitude.

- Francesca’s response to Ravi’s accolade-listing introduction is funny: “Francesca, Italian person, no companies.”

- Ravi is comedy gold at the dinner party: I enjoyed his wild oscillation between overdressed and underdressed, his awful business card, and his crashing Dev and Francesca’s romantic moment during John Legend's song. What is the party's hashtag, really?

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