In Season 2 of Master of None, creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang boldly draw on Italian film classics, and apply their cinematic sensibility to the problems of the present. The end result is a fantastically creative and artistic spin on the modern romantic comedy.
As Master of None’s meditations on dating in the smartphone age continue into the sophomore season, the show gets even bolder. Creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang draw on Italian film classics of the past, and apply their cinematic sensibility to the problems of the present.
Master of None aligns itself as part of a grand cinematic tradition.
As we look at these ultra-wide shots, we have no doubts that the show aspires to be, and is, art. And its bold, artistic self-assertion makes the show a game-changer for what future TV might look like.
In Season 2, we open on Dev working as an apprentice working at a pasta shop in Italy.
The pan in the first episode to Dev’s bedside stack of Blu Rays announces to us which movies Dev (and Ansari and Yang) have been watching in preparation for the season: Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves; Michaelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Avventura, and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8½, and Amarcord.
Master of None is rising to their level of cinematic poetry, their searching existential inquiries, the seriousness with which they treat personal dilemmas, and their inherently cool mood.
The show pioneers a new form of what we might call “Arthouse TV”, or the “Arthouse Rom Com.
After World War II, neorealist directors like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti used a realistic, down-to-earth style to represent the day-to-day lives of poor people in a country that had been broken by the war.
Season 2’s first episode, entirely in black-and-white and largely in Italian, is called "The Thief" -- a direct homage to De Sica's 1948 "Bicycle Thieves."
A defining example of Italian neorealism. Bicycle Thieves tells the tragic story of poor father Antonio and his young son Bruno as they search for Antonio's stolen bicycle, which he desperately needs in order to work to support his family.
In Master of None, it's not Dev's bike that has been stolen, but his phone -- containing the phone number of a beautiful woman he’s just met.
To the outside, Dev’s loss appears trivial -- a “first-world problem” that couldn’t be farther from Antonio’s need to feed his family.
The homage to sorrow-filled neorealism comically highlights the absurdity of the phone’s necessity.
Dev picks up a young kid, Mario, to stand in for Bruno. And briefly, like Antonio, Dev himself becomes the thief of the item stolen from him.
Yet, to Dev, the tragedy is earnest -- what he’s lost is an opportunity for romance that he can’t know for sure wasn’t the real thing. While someone like Dev knows he’s privileged not to have the problems of Antonio, what he wants most — to meet someone to share his life with — continues to elude him.
Vincent F. Rocchio has termed the Neorealist movement “Cinema of Anxiety”.
Bicycle Thieves structures anxiety of social realities into the plot, to draw us into feeling Antonio’s desperation.
In a very different way, Master of None’s TV of Anxiety pulls us into relating to Dev’s anxiety as he struggles with loneliness, the fear of never finding someone, and the difficulty of living an authentic life.
Neorealism abandoned the past whitewashed, sentimental films for a grittier, realistic representation.
Master of None also makes realism a priority -- it gets serious when necessary; it holds longer than we expect on a small moment or feeling; and more than chasing a particular laugh or plot outcome, it’s trying to capture truth.
The long shot of Dev alone in the back of the cab at the end of “The Dinner Party,” interrupted only by a short cut to his phone, captures the real feeling of a lonely ride home.
While most TV shows would cut out of this moment, here we share in the interminable torture of not being able to cut away from our own dissatisfaction or loneliness in the same situation.
Master of None’s realism also comes from the texture of mixing up, parodying and reinterpreting genre forms.
This TV of realism has fun lambasting so-called “reality TV”.
Neorealism was marked by its street-level view of the everyday lives of the poor, filmed on-location with largely unknown actors.
Master of None’s "New York, I Love You" pays respect to this tradition by abandoning the series' main cast in favor of a day-in-the-life of three blue-collar workers’ to represent a wider range of experience.
The pause in the main story reminds us that Dev's romantic struggles are a small drop in the bucket of trials facing millions of New Yorkers. And in a fun twist, seeing Dev taking in the movie Death Castle alongside these strangers -- the cute comic button tells us: we are all connected.
The two Italian directors that Master of None draws on the most are Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Coming in near the end of neorealism, Fellini and Antonioni ushered in more decadent films about bourgeois characters, while rejecting more traditional plot structures in favor of mood-driven, cool alienation, searching existential inquiry and cinematic poetry.
In Amarsi Un Po,’ Dev’s and Francesca’s dance moves echo the dancing in 8 1/2, and the opening shots of New York echo the famous helicopter shots at the start of La Dolce Vita.
The 1983 song playing at the start of “Le Nozze” is also called “Dolce Vita.” And like “Amarcord” -- which is dialect for “I remember,” loosely inspired by Fellini’s own childhood -- Master of None continues its preference for comic vignettes and the cinematic feeling of a youth entering a crazy world and observing its colorful cast of characters.
The deepest homages, though, are to Antonioni, and his L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse -- a spiritual trilogy, united by similar themes and all starring Monica Vitti.
The second episode, Le Nozze, sounds like La Notte. “Le Nozze” actually means wedding or marriage, while La Notte means “night.”
La Notte depicts a lavish party, during which Marcello Mastroianni’s character grapples with the realization that his wife no longer loves him.
In Master of None, Arnold struggles to accept that his ex-girlfriend is getting married, and to someone who looks just like him, just smaller.
Working within the same theme, Dev decides to stop texting with his ex, Rachel, so he can commit to moving on. The homage is sealed when it starts raining and the guests jump in the pool - a scene that recreates La Notte.
“Amarsi Un Po’” translates to loving each other a little -- it’s the name of a 1977 Italian song that plays at the end of the episode, and a 1984 rom com.
The song’s words “Loving each other a little is like drinking” capture how Dev and Francesca are dipping their toes in the water of love, wondering whether loving each other, long-term, would really be as easy or as fun as this.
The episode borrows directly from L'Eclisse, when Dev and Francesca kiss through glass just before actually kissing.
And, of course, the biggest inspiration — especially in this episode — is L'Avventura, the story of the search for missing Anna by her best friend Claudia and her boyfriend Sandro, who soon forget all about Anna and begin a love affair.
Like the missing Anna, Francesca's fiance Pino is noticeably absent. The parallels are made very explicit when Dev and Francesca watch L'Avventura and Dev imagines that they are Sandro and Claudia.
The vibrant Francesca herself feels like an actress out of one of these iconic movies -- and the show intentionally draws that comparison, almost as if Dev has imagined this woman for himself out of watching enough Italian movies.
Dev himself channels a Marcello Mastroianni-style of hero. He’s not an everyman. He’s charming, well-off, he’s lucky, he has a good income and lots of free time -- which gives him space to contemplate his dissatisfaction and alienation.
When Dev is trying to get over Francesca, he chooses between watching a terrible comedy to forget her, or L’Avventura.
And he chooses the good movie.
His choice of L’Avventura here is a meta-commentary reflecting the show’s ambitions.
It doesn’t want to be a dumb enjoyable comedy that numbs our pain. It wants to be the beautiful, romantic story that moves us, even though it hurts.
And its philosophy of life is, likewise, that we should take our own lives seriously, commit to the life we really want and who we want to be, even though it’s difficult.
L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse are often thought of as films in which nothing really happens.
Antonioni radically rejected the tyranny of plot-driven storytelling. And many people objected to this, or still find his films boring today.
Yet Master of None’s slow-paced growth — especially in Amarsi Un Po, as Dev and Francesca develop feelings for one another — meanders along in L’Avventura’s ambivalent footsteps.
It captures L’Avventura’s emotional confusion and lack of a clear path forward.
Dev questions whether his sadness is even truly about Francesca in particular.
Like Sandro and Claudia, they are reaching out to quell their loneliness, but they don’t know with certainty what it is they're really looking for.
L'Avventura ends without closure, and Master of None's second season also ends in ambiguity.
We see a moment of Francesca in bed with Dev. We question whether it could be a flashback to the night of the snowstorm, since it’s snowing outside the window.
But she’s wearing a different shirt.
Meanwhile, the editing of the preceding scenes create the feeling that this moment could be in one, or both, of their heads. So the reality isn’t confirmed for us, for sure.
Shortly before this, Dev bumps into Rachel and has a hurried conversation with her that he can’t wait to get out of.
She’s a stranger who means nothing to him now that he’s in love with Francesca. It’s a significant meeting for its insignificance.
And again it captures something real that many people experience — running into an ex who now feels like a stranger.
And we can interpret the meaning of this scene in opposite ways.
It could reinforce how real and deep his feelings for Francesca really are, since his connection with Rachel pales so much in comparison; or it could signal that, one day, running into Francesca like this could be just as uneventful.
Our lives can’t escape this ambiguity of never quite knowing if the reality we feel in this moment will disappear; if the person we love will become a stranger.
Life is that transience and never knowing.
As a romantic comedy set in New York, Master of None invites inevitable comparisons to Woody Allen.
It calls to mind Allen’s upper-middle class perspective, romantic consternation, and neurotic talking and walking.
Alessandra Mastronardi as Francesca also featured in Allen's 2012 To Rome With Love. Like Allen’s Manhattan (1970) which uses few cuts, sometimes leaving the camera in place almost like we’re watching a play, DP Mark Schwartzbard has said that Yang and Ansari wanted a cinematic look with shots that would develop. Master of None isn’t quick to cut, but it favors wider shots and long takes.
In film theory terms, this would be a mise-en-scene style, as opposed to montage.
According to the cinematographer, the aesthetic was “all about old lenses and filtering to create a soft, glowy and romantic vision of New York,” and he’s cited the influence of 70s movies like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
The show’s restrained choice to play out most of its actions on long takes of wides or medium-wides makes it all the more compelling when we do get close-ups, as in the key scene when Dev finally tells Francesca his feelings.
Dev’s frustration has been mirrored in the camera that won’t let us get too close, until the emotional reveal finally allows us that proximity.
The unhurried "walking and talking" courtship also reminds us of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. And the love triangles and spontaneous dance parties -- plus Francesca’s ineffable whimsy and looks -- call to mind French New Wave cinema.
It’s not a big stretch to imagine her subbing in for Anna Karina in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
In 1997 Roger Ebert asked:
"Why don't we have movies like "L'Avventura" anymore? Because we don't ask the same kinds of questions anymore. We have replaced the "purpose of life” with the "choice of lifestyle."
Perhaps Master of None, too, is asking us to once again consider not just what we want, but why we want it.
Our relief when Francesca finally admits to sharing Dev’s feelings is palpable, yet our anxiety persists because there is no way to know if taking the leap is really right for her or him.
Despite what more conventional TV or movies might have us believe
[I love Josh]
more often than not we find ourselves in situations where we know we feel something, but it isn't as simple as knowing " I love you forever."
The best we can hope for might be to spend time with someone who lends our life a sense of purpose. At least for now.