It might not be true that writer-actress Lena Waitheborrowed from her real-life relationship struggles, or that co-creator-director-actor Aziz Ansari was inspired by his own stalled career following a sexual misconduct allegation, to breathe new life into Netflix's long-paused Master of None. But the series, which was already exceptional at highlighting both the minutiae and weightiness of a life lived, seems ever more humbled and consequently more human than ever with those personal influences.
A lot has obviously happened since Master of None previously bowed on a high note with a tremendous second season in 2017 that was punctuated by black-and-white cinematography, luscious French landscape, and a Golden Globe win. The series had finally convinced audiences that Ansari had more than proven himself as a filmmaker, compelling us to look at both the beauty and problems of the world around us in equal measure. Formerly known for playing the relatively minor role of Denise, friend of Ansari's Dev on the series, Waithe's career skyrocketed after she and Ansari earned a groundbreaking Golden Globe for a standalone episode detailing Denise's coming out story.
But since then, Waithe, who went on to write and produce other work including Them and Queen & Slim, was propped up as a promising, fresh Black voice in cinema, got married and divorced, then later relentlessly dragged on social media for her films and series that are often described as "trauma porn." Meanwhile, Ansari's celebrity has mostly dimmed in light of the allegation and subsequent criticisms against him, save for his 2019 Netflix stand-up special, Aziz Ansari: Right Now, that garnered tepid reviews at best.
This is all to say, neither figure is exactly at the top of their game right now. it is partly why the third season is such a fascinating reflection of who they are right now since the myriad accolades have been washed away to reveal sometimes more solemn, thornier, and even more contemplative versions of themselves. This latest season makes an intriguing choice to bring Ansari to the background and Waithe to the foreground with the former taking a mostly behind-the-camera role as a skilled director, co-writing with Waithe and highlighting Denise's story as the centerpiece.
That shift, likely in response to Ansari's tarnished name, could have just as easily provoked eye rolls from an audience that is exhausted by Waithe. But both Waithe and Ansari seem acutely aware of the effects they have on their viewers and, instead of actively trying to win back their good graces, take a more introspective route.
The Denise we meet this season is a protagonist in her own love story with wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie), navigating life as a couple living in what looks like a snowy artists' retreat though it is actually their cozy, warmly lit main home outside of New York City.True to the essence of Master of None, each of the new episodes are told in slice-of-life format, simply but profoundly following the women's lives both as individuals and a marital unit.
There are beats -- like the two of them lying together reading in bed, being artists grappling with stunted creativity, deciding to have a baby, and an affectionate Alicia surprising the more restrained Denise while in therapy -- that are like really fulfilling minutes around a clock that is their relationship. They're expected but still feel so soothing and lived in, just as when Ansari peers the camera to where Denise hangs up her hoodie at their front door each day.
But, like in many relationships, there's a point when those welcome habits start to fray when reality settles in and they're forced to look at themselves as well as each other. For Denise and Alicia, that moment comes at the arrival of the former's old friend Dev and his partner for a small dinner party at their cabin. It starts out lovely as the two entities share niceties and what at first appears to be silly quirks about each other. That escalates to Dev's partner casually mentioning that they are now living in his parents' home in Queens and that his scene was cut out of a movie. From there, things go from awkward to cringey as Dev grapples with his own shame, no longer putting in the effort to grasp at a punchline in order to wiggle himself out of it.
Meanwhile, Denise and Alicia all but try to sink into the floorboards with the former particularly rattled by the sight of Dev and his relationship. It becomes increasingly clear as the season progresses that she and Dev aren't as close anymore, and that they've both found ways to recede farther away from themselves and each other and neither has accomplished whatever they thought would come of that.
This could easily be conjecture as the two characters have been playing meta versions of their public personas since the start of the series in 2015. But this season hits really close to home as we watch them struggle with who they are versus how they want to be seen. Denise loves being loved, but she is unable to be the wife Alicia deserves. And Dev wrestles with acceptance -- both from others and himself. The two estranged friends can hardly even look into each other's eyes anymore, because they know that the truth is there and they can't hide from it. But it proves so necessary when it does finally happen.
Though the latest episodes of Master of None chronicle Denise and Alicia's relationship, and their individual struggles, the season is most interesting when it quietly focuses on each character separately, with nothing and no one to sit with but themselves and their thoughts -- as painful as that is at times. It's a wonderfully human exploration of regret, loss and, ultimately, humility.
TV Guide rating: 5/5
Master of None Season 3 premieres Sunday, May 23 on Netflix.