At the end of the first episode of the second season of “Master of None,” a sweet black-and-white homage to Italian film classics including Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” I let out a heartfelt “Phew.” The sophomore slump that afflicts so many shows — among them “Homeland,” “Mr. Robot,” “True Detective,” “Heroes,” “The Killing,” and, yes, “Twin Peaks” — has skipped over this particular gem, which seemed to come out of nowhere in 2015.
The new round of Aziz Ansari’s insightful comedy — about being a struggling actor, being Indian-American, and being single and looking in New York — is as charming as ever. Ansari continues to be breezy and adorable, with a great passion for food that, this season, involves pork, pasta, and Bobby Cannavale playing a famous foodie known as Chef Jeff. His character, Dev, isn’t an ironic soul, fighting despair with dark wit; he’s basically a sunny man who still believes his happiness is out there, if he can only find it lurking in the corners of Tinder and the menus of Manhattan. When we first see him, he’s finishing an extended stay in Modena, Italy, but by episode three he’s back among the pizzas and calzones of New York.
But Ansari is also a layered leading man, something you’d never have expected if you only knew him as the frivolous hustler on “Parks and Recreation.” As Dev deals with the trials of dating, recovery from last season’s breakup, his parents’ hopes that he be a devout Muslim, and his irritating job as host of a glossy reality nightmare called “Clash of the Cupcakes,” Ansari evokes an enormous amount of poignancy. When Dev hurts, feeling information-age overload and weariness, you feel it. In one long, bold scene at the end of episode five, a scene modeled after the final shot in George Clooney’s “Michael Clayton,” we see Dev sitting silently in the back of an Uber, his face reflecting all kinds of sorrow as he realizes he’s in love with an unavailable woman. Ansari makes it work, as we see Dev sinking into his difficult thoughts.
What’s different about the second season of “Master of None” is a greater sense of auteurish confidence — a willingness to allude to movies, to toy with linear storytelling, and to artfully frame shots, particularly during an impressive museum sequence in which Dev strolls with his visiting Italian friend, Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). In the excellent fourth episode, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang craft a powerful story out of Dev’s dating life, as pieces of his first Tinder dates with eight or so women are jumbled together into a kind of narrative Tinder screen. It’s not just another one of TV’s by-now-clichéd punchy dating sequences. Each date scene has a small arc, and, over the course of the episode, each woman has an arc; it’s as if a full season of “Seinfeld” and his cockeyed relationships have been distilled into a half-hour.
That kind of playfulness and risk-taking wends in and out of the season with the kind of assurance usually seen in the work of more experienced TV and movie makers. Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham may have paved the way for this kind of tonally elastic, moderately experimental half-hour TV storytelling, and there’s no denying a hint of late 1970s Woody Allen in Ansari’s New York-centrism, his neuroses, and his cultural struggles. But Ansari isn’t replicating anyone. He and Yang, along with Eric Wareheim, who plays Arnold (he also directs a number of episodes), have their own style, as they spin idiosyncratic vignettes about modern life with little to no attention to the conventional TV rules. Bottom line, “Master of None” is unique.
In the age of Too Much TV, when you have to pick your shows carefully. here’s one less decision to worry about.
MASTER OF NONE
Starring: Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe, Alessandra Mastronardi, Fatima Ansari, Shoukath Ansari
On: Netflix, season two available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.