As a parody of an indulgently self-serious series, Master of None Presents Moments in Love is pitch perfect, right down to the title. The disappointing thing is it’s not a parody; Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe really are this serious.
After two much ballyhooed, successful seasons, what went wrong? A few things that were out of the control of series creators Ansari and Alan Yang, like the pandemic and Ansari’s messy #MeToo moment. But they adroitly address Ansari by not addressing him: He’s now a recurring character on his own series, as the focus shifts to Season 2 breakout Denise (Waithe), with whom viewers truly fell in love in the series’ best episode, “Thanksgiving.”
Over the course of five episodes ranging in running time from 21 to 53 minutes, we meet Denise and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie), living a quiet life in upstate New York sometime after the successful publication of Denise’s book. By the end of Episode 2, they’ve split up. This is intended to be powerful, which one knows because the camera doesn’t move as it silently observes the quiet devastation of heartbreak in a manner that I think is called “unflinching.” But we’ve barely spent any time with Denise or Alicia, either as a couple or individually. And watching their showily overlapping dialogue in times good and bad only highlights all the aspects of the first two seasons that made Master of None one of the flagship series for streamers.
There’s a sterile quality to these episodes, courtesy of Ansari’s direction. There are no closeups, there are few cuts. The camera sits, framing the performers in a medium shot, and lets them run through their pages of dialogue (or weighty silences). That means that the audience is given no entry point into Denise and Alicia’s inner lives, no flickers of something else playing across their faces as they argue or feign indifference. They are as distant from us as they turn out to be from one another, and that remove turns out to be fatal.
Master of None was always a series that took big swings, from the eight-minute silent scene in the episode “New York, I Love You,” to the homage to Italian neorealism. But this new season buckles under the weight of Ansari’s and Waithe’s seriousness. Episode 4 has garnered a lot of attention for its pitiless examination of a single queer woman of color undergoing IVF treatment, but we barely know Alicia when we watch her take that journey. And her hard-won independence is immediately jettisoned in the season finale, when we find out that she’s now partnered (god forbid anyone end up happily alone on TV!) but still occasionally meeting Denise for an affair.
That they’ve found a rapprochement after their ugly final moments as a couple is a strange development, and the irresistible urge to reunite them is at odds with the rest of the season, Moments in Love is a predominantly icy, anti-sentimental look at the ways in which relationships ebb and flow that also wants to be affecting and moving. That they don’t stick the landing is hardly surprising when so few shows do. But that this season comes at the expence of one of TV’s most innovative and eclectic series is the true disappointment.