‘Master of None’ Perfects a TV Romance Cliche

Season 2 of the Netflix comedy is not just better than the first but might be better than all other TV comedies this year.
By  · Published on June 15th, 2017

Season 2 of the Netflix comedy is not just better than the first but might be better than all other TV comedies this year.

To say that Master of None brings the movie rom-com to the small screen is to ignore the history of romance on television. Which should be difficult to do since the “will they or won’t they” cliche is notorious. Season 2 of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang‘s Netflix series honors a lot of influences, many of them cinematic but also one that’s been driving TV fans crazy for decades. And it perfects that overused narrative staple beautifully.

One reason for any confusion about the difference between romance on TV and in movies is there’s not much. “Will they or won’t they” is a phrase reserved for famous aspects of the shows CheersMoonlighting, The X-FilesFriends, and The Mindy Project, among many others. But there are just as many if not more examples on the big screen, such as When Harry Met SallyIn the Mood for Love, any film where two best friends finally wind up together at the end, and any based on “The Taming of the Shrew” (which Moonlighting acknowledged in one episode adapted from the Shakespeare play).

It’s just that movies have a shorter span of time in which to tell their stories and so tend to focus just on that romance narrative. TV shows make the romantic arcs one of multiple plot lines running through a bunch of episodes or a season or a whole series. Part of why viewers can get tired of the question of will they or won’t they is because the shows drag it out. The unresolved sexual tension driving that story can fizzle after a while, yet if the show goes ahead and answers the question conclusively too soon, that can burst the bubble for the whole thing.

Master of None‘s second season has been championed for its more autonomous episodes, those with wonderfully witty vignettes focused on religion, dating apps, and coming out, as well as one following multiple characters around New York City in a manner similar to Richard Linklater’s Slacker. But there’s also an ongoing storyline throughout, from the first episode to the last, where Ansari’s Dev is falling more and more in love with his Italian friend Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi).

Their’s is not a classic “will they or won’t they” situation, because it doesn’t just simply exist there in the background or hover on a flat, stagnant plane that never really increases or decreases in dramatic weight. Dev and Francesca are introduced as friends and co-workers in her grandma’s pasta shop in Modena, Italy. They have an affinity we don’t pay too much attention to at first because he’s returning to New York soon and she has a boyfriend (Riccardo Scamarcio).

Then she and the boyfriend visit the Big Apple, and Dev and Francesca spend a lot of time together as pals. We start to sense a growing attraction, especially on his part and particularly when others bring up her beauty and their chemistry. Of course he likes her, because as rom-com movies and TV have told us forever, men and women can’t be just friends. But that isn’t true in real life, and Master of None doesn’t immediately hone in on that goal for itself. So when the tension does heat up, we’re satisfied with them as friends and shouldn’t want more for them.

Until the penultimate episode, the double-length “Amarsi Un Po,” when everything changes. Francesca and her boyfriend are back in New York, she and Dev have more adventures just the two of them while the boyfriend works, and the certain romance builds and builds. By the end of the hour, we are in love with Dev, we are in love with Francesca, and we are in love with them together. We enter the fantasy ourselves as a sort of threesome involving man, woman, and invested audience.

“Amarsi Un Po” is one of the most romantically tense pieces of television or cinema. Their chemistry, their excursions to pharmacies and Storm King being equal in shared pleasure, their dance to Italian music in their pajamas (hers more tantalizing), their platonic sleepover, and their final confessions of feelings while flying around the city is full of turbulence both exciting and daunting, and it’s enough of a story all its own but is fuller for having the background, evolution, and aftermath surround it.

The aftermath actually delivers another climax in a very sexy dance and first kiss where Dev and Francesca are on opposite sides of an interior French door. Then they kiss, and we immediately experience the bursting of the fantasy along with the couple. Had they just gotten together at the end of the previous episode and that was the end of the story, it’d be ok. Extended to this point with more tension, it brings in the more realistic and relatable outcome. Of course she has to go back to Italy. It can’t be.

The audience gets to have it both ways, however, in the final shot, which could be actual or not. Will they or won’t they? Yes. And no. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s such a quick ambiguous moment that it doesn’t feel like a cop out or a cheat, either. It really could go both ways, and could also go a variety of different ways from there. None are right or wrong or better or worse. The final episode of Season 2, “Buona Notte,” is wrong and bad for other reasons — the subplot with Dev’s partnership with a celebrity chef (Bobby Cannavale) takes a sloppy dark turn — but not where it matters.

That subplot tackles another sitcom cliche, the one where a show’s main characters wind up with an unrealistic dream job or life change that elevates them to a social status most of us can’t identify with anymore, but that’s for another discussion. It also forms part of something that works very well for Master of None‘s perfect romance tale in Season 2. There are breaks from the Dev and Francesca story that allow it to breathe as it escalates and falls.

The breaks don’t put a slow cooking romance on the back burner for these other plot lines and episodes, which include the independent vignettes and other bits not focused on Dev and Francesca. They’re more like interruptions and asides to help us not think too much about the will they or won’t they. Time is able to pass with us feeling it, and we can forget about the possibility of the coupling just as Dev probably does when Francesca’s not in town.

Master of None has always been strong in its empathy, not just for its main characters and their struggles as minorities, which is where the first season mostly shines, but also with insignificant characters that come and go. When it wants us to feel what Dev feels, though, this season really ramps up the experience. We spend three whole minutes with him in the back of a car as he’s just thinking and coming to a realization about Francesca (as are we) in the midseason episode “The Dinner Party.”

From there, the show has to go into an episode, “New York, I Love You,” that barely even features Dev and his friends, to take our mind off the romantic plot. Because for the time being it’s done, she’s gone back to Italy, we move on with a hard turn. The next episode, “Door #3,” is able to keep our minds away until its final moment when Francesca reveals she’s engaged via Skype. It’s another turning point, one where we can think, ok, that’s definitely not happening now, or hmm, this is a sudden reminder of Dev’s feelings (for him and us) and another obstacle in his/our path to a happy ending to figure out.

The pacing of the romance, which could never be achieved so well in a feature film because a movie doesn’t have the time for the breaks, works whether you binge Season 2 of Master of None or extend it over many days or weeks. Those instances where the series gets more episodic also helps to alleviate the typical need with Netflix shows to watch them all at once. This isn’t a show where you ever have to know right away what happens next.

Season 2 of Master of None does a lot of things better than most television series, and many movies. But its greatest achievement, even more than its potential to make viewers seek out Italian cinema and music (and better Italian food), is how it improves upon the idea of romantic comedy, and romance in general, on the small screen. There’s never been better, and yet it’s too good to be considered iconic (see “Ross and Rachel”).

Now the only reason to ever ask “will they or won’t they” again is in the direction of other TV series. Will they or won’t they ever compare? It’d be great if this was the new standard, but it’s more likely the cliche will carry on as stale as it has for years. Master of None clearly has one of the least appropriate titles. It masters what it does above all else.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.