Its points of reference are impeccable: Bicycle Thieves and L’Avventura, David Bowie and D’Angelo, craft cocktails in Manhattan and homemade pastas in Modena. Its style is, too: white linen suits at a summer wedding and a pair of red Vespas on a sun-splashed lane, the careful symmetries of fall foliage at Storm King and winter’s first snowstorm, clear of the clutter of other people’s lives. But Netflix’s Master of None, in which Dev (co-creator Aziz Ansari) and Arnold (Eric Wareheim) plan dates down to the perfect wine and rehearse conversations with women as if running lines from a script, is not a series in which form follows function—at least not until the second season’s last image, erasing the heartache at the final episode’s core. In this, Master of None is a gorgeous, often delightful romance that still doesn’t quite know where it stands on the subject: a perfectly curated comedy about the perils of living a perfectly curated life.
Returning to New York after a restorative stint in north central Italy, Dev endeavors to resume that life as if his relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells) had never happened, and for time he appears to succeed. He forms a partnership with the impresario known as Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale, channeling Anthony Bourdain), signing on to host a Cupcake Wars-style competition; he returns again and again to the same restaurant, the same bar, with a series of women, in the at once daring and deadening “First Dates.” Splicing together these exchanges until it becomes as much about the template of the first date as it does about any one in particular, the episode is an emblem of Master of None’s frustrating second season: Its structure is ingenious, capturing the “modern” in “modern romance” with excruciating exactitude, but the women across the table are reduced to their eccentricities—one drones on about wrestling; another retreats to the restroom for a line of cocaine—mere projections of Dev’s lovelorn disappointment. It’s as if they’re a muffled signal from the not-so-distant future, in which Dev pines for Francesca (the charming Alessandra Mastronardi) during her own stint in New York: In matters of the heart, there is no “right” dish, no “right” song, that can replace understanding where the other person is coming from.
It’s not that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang aren’t occasional masters of this empathic streak. The season’s most distinctive episodes, “New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving,” delve into the lives of a doorman, a deaf woman, a Burundian cab driver and Dev’s longtime friend, Denise (Lena Waithe), using narrative structures as inventive as that of “First Dates” to offer sublime treatments of relationships more complicated than curated. The production design itself shifts here from Dev and Arnold’s considered cool to the warm, careworn filaments of the unfiltered life: “New York, I Love You” turns on the near-theft of a hideous scarf and the sounds of a dreadful club tune; “Thanksgiving,” set in Denise’s childhood home, suggests the comforting tempo of tradition, the assurance, if we’re lucky, that we’ll sit at the same table with the same people, eating the same dishes, year after year after year.
This is the real modern romance of Master of None, the notion that even in the midst of change—the inevitable transformations of place and time that shape the arc of everyone’s story—we might, if we’re lucky, remain moored to our cities, our families, our homes, and so build a life more stable than the latest passing fad. That the second season’s central through line, Dev’s attraction to Francesca, drifts in the opposite direction, toward the cinematic dreamscapes of Monica Vitti and Claudia Cardinale, thus seems to me to misapprehend the series’ foremost strength, which is its acknowledgement that imperfection (the public argument, the foiled plan, the awkward conversation) is the force that both pushes us forward and grounds us in place. I don’t want to suggest that I’m innocent of Dev and Arnold’s impulse to curate contentment, or love—my life often seems one long attempt to cultivate the “right” taste, and thereby to win admiration, affection, from strangers and crushes alike—but as Master of None Season Two reaches its end, it can’t seem to abandon its interest in sophistication long enough to bring Dev’s own arc to a satisfactory close.
In the slippery pair of episodes that conclude the season, both titled in Italian (“Amarsi Un Po” and “Buona Notte”), Dev and Francesca first resist, then relent to, their burgeoning romance, set to her simultaneous translation of the note-perfect song: “You will know in just one moment what it means, a year of love,” she whispers. “What it means, a year of love.” Soon, though, the fantasies Dev’s spent the season constructing begin to spin apart, the spell suddenly broken: Francesca can’t bring herself to break off her engagement, to which Dev responds with honest, if uncomfortable, self-pity; meanwhile, Chef Jeff turns out to be a serial sexual harasser, likely sinking the pair’s forthcoming TV show. With Dev reeling, “Buona Notte” sets up a stirring conclusion, one in which the notion that we can shape the arc of our own stories without addressing the clutter of other people’s lives emerges as the most dangerous fantasy of all. “Now I just feel fucking alone,” Dev confesses to Arnold, recognizing that no number of impeccable choices is enough to forge the connections we crave, and for a moment he seems set to move forward, and perhaps to rediscover his place.
That the season’s final frame unsettles the implication of Dev’s reckoning, his confrontation with the pain of the unforeseen imperfection, might establish the terms of Master of None’s future, but for now the sight of Dev and Francesca in bed together on that snowbound night—inserted after she leaves her fiancé’s question (“Are you ready?”) unanswered—returns us to the realm of silver screen romances, of fantasies, of dreams. It’s an ambivalent ending, leaving us, and the characters, dangling, and in this it expresses both the series’ ambition and its uncertain complexion, poised between the poetry of movies and the prose of real life. Perhaps this is why I wrestled with Master of None’s second season, and came away convinced that it was, for all its impeccable choices, no more than a qualified success: It’s a series so composed that it can’t quite pin down what it means for Dev to feel “fucking alone,” which is, let me tell you, a messy, imperfect, wrenching experience, impossible to gloss with good taste.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.