We all have different lenses. Lying in bed, Denise asks her wife what she’s reading. “Sherlock,” Alicia answers, in that offhand way we refer to classics without clarification. Denise shakes her head in mock-disapproval. “Such a white book,” she says. Denise is a bestselling novelist who likes weed in the mornings. Alicia works in antiques, treasuring both protest-art and premium pyjamas. They are black, creative women living in a stunning country home with a proudly black aesthetic. They are readers Arthur Conan Doyle never imagined.
The third season of acclaimed Netflix series Master Of None — titled Moments In Love — examines this marriage. The viewer isn’t invited in as much as allowed to stay. The camera keeps Denise and Alicia at a distance, and the first time we see them laugh, we stumble upon them cracking up at the end of a funny story, eavesdropping too late to know why it was funny. Funny, the show seems to say, may not be the point. At least not any more.
Master Of None, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, has always been a shapeshifter. The first season featured Ansari’s Dev Shah struggling as an auditioning actor, an Indian-American in New York, too Indian for American shows and too American for his Indian parents. The uproarious comedy packed insight after insight about the evolving immigrant experience, often veering away from Dev’s own self-involved story. One episode, ‘Parents’, written by the creators about their Indian and Taiwanese parents, was particularly excellent.
Season Two saw Dev in Italy, paying black and white tributes to European masters of cinema while learning to make gnocchi. The show was braver, looser. In the rollicking ‘Religion’, Dev picks pork over prayer. In the groundbreaking ‘Thanksgiving’, the focus swivels to Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe), portraying a coloured woman’s journey of growing up queer.
The new third season, all about Denise and Alicia, has very little room for Dev — or for laughs. Ansari, who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018, appears to be ceding his stage to other storytellers in a bid to prove his ally-ship. It is a strong move, and the episodes (written by Waithe and Ansari) authentically deal with marital discord, divorce, infidelity and infertility. Ansari has directed all five episodes, with master cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (of Dogtooth and The Lobster) shooting them on 16mm film in a 4:3 ratio, keeping the frames wide and static, eschewing all close-ups in an overt tribute to Ingmar Bergman.
The results are unique. At first, the blinkered film-grain aesthetic seems too formalist, as if to prove that Ansari has watched the right movies. Yet I doubt modern television has seen anything quite like this, a claustrophobically paced series with the squared-off frame adding to the studied stillness. The shot stays while characters pace in and out, talking from outside the frame. While the Bergman influence is visually obvious, having powerful, complicated black women at the center of those frames feels automatically radical. In one shot, both sit in a bathtub, knees nearly knocking, the light above them a faux moon. All is beautiful, all is a mess, all is believable. Scenes From A Miscarriage.
The problem with this solemn, silent approach — besides alienating those who loved the laughs of the early seasons — is that observing a living, breathing, imploding marriage may be less insightful than taking it apart and talking about it, as Master Of None used to do with vim. Denise, outspoken in early seasons, is now taciturn, seeking out corners and minutes to eat a sandwich or to smoke by herself. There are great performances — British actress Naomi Ackie is spellbinding as Alicia, particularly in an episode about IVF treatments— but where Master Of None used to dissect convention, it now seems to be following it.
There are, of course, some observations that shine through: in the sole close-up of the entire series — on Alicia’s face — she is informed that insurance companies are better equipped to handle an attack by an orca than a queer person wanting to have a child. It is absolutely absurd, and Alicia’s disbelief, finally coming to us up close instead of from a small portion of the screen, overwhelmingly spills onto our own.
Since we ascribe meanings to art to make it better fit our own condition, I felt a presence of the pandemic in this series that ignores it. There are no masks in Master Of None, yet it captures the loneliness, isolation and distance of our time. When Alicia cries on the phone to her mother about having to take a fertility injection alone, and the mother, helplessly far, talks her into it, it is a distance we know too well. Sometimes all we need is someone to tell us “This too shall pass.”
“Being successful is like being in heaven,” Denise says, at one point. “Then someone comes and taps you on the shoulder and asks you to go to hell for a little while.” That relative hell is real life after having tasted fame, and it's hard not to imagine Ansari sharing the character’s wistfulness, missing the caché he once enjoyed as a popular entertainer currently unable to say much. With Master Of None, the commentator has become the observer.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.