In “Master of None,” food has a power beyond mere deliciousness. Flailing actor Dev’s (Ansari) craving for pasta is the force that propels him to Italy at the end of the show’s first season, and he begins this season eating his way through the country, sharing a hard-to-get reservation with a fellow foodie and curing his friend Arnold’s (Eric Wareheim) melancholy with cheese. His curiosity about culinary traditions other than his family’s draws Dev to the Watkins family home for Thanksgiving dinner over the decades, and forms the core of his rebellion against strict Islamic observance. After a promising first date with Priya (Tiya Sircar), Dev’s enthusiasm wanes when it’s clear that she doesn’t share his cravings. Another bad date gets a little bit of a lift when Dev learns he’s out with a cult ramen blogger. He forges a professional relationship with food-show-chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale) through constant eating. And Dev’s yearning for his Italian friend Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) is rooted in their shared appetites for food, for wine and for culture.
If hunger and food are the predominant themes of the second season of “Master of None,” they also illustrate its serious limitations. The deliciousness of various foods often end up becoming a proxy for more serious ethical, professional or romantic considerations.
Take the third episode, “Religion,” in which Dev introduces his cousin Navid (Harris Gani), who is a more observant Muslim than Dev himself, to pork. That revelation leads both young men to skip Eid prayers to go to a barbecue festival. Though the episode begins in a clever fashion, with Tupac’s “Only God Can Judge Me” playing over Dev’s first childhood experience with bacon, there isn’t much God in the episode. Instead, “Religion” stacks crispy bacon, glistening ribs and piles of brisket up against the prospect of mere parental disapproval. Dev doesn’t so much fear God’s wrath as his mother’s (Fatima Ansari) pinches. And his father’s (Shoukath Ansari) concerns about Dev’s observance turn out to be almost entirely about how Dev will look to his aunt and uncle.
It’s obviously a rigged fight: “Religion” never bothers to engage with the prospect that abstaining from pork, or any other form of Islamic observance, might be genuinely meaningful to some people. There’s nothing wrong with using an argument over food for Dev to work out some of his issues with his parents. But in the context of this season, the fact that “Religion” operates on that level means that Dev’s cravings never face serious competition: He can keep scarfing pork as long as he doesn’t do it in front of his parents. The episode, like much of the season, is charming but not as deep as it seems to aspire to be.
If “Religion” is a missed opportunity to actually probe faith, another subplot of the season is surprisingly shallow about food itself. Dev’s agent sets him up as the host of a shallow baking show, “Clash of the Cupcakes,” selling him on the idea that the series is somehow food-related. But oddly, “Master of None” never really bothers to introduce us to any of the contestants on the show, or to explore their relationship to food, or to examine what Dev’s contempt for the job means about him.
By Dev’s exacting standards, caring a great deal about sugary little confections may seem misguided and fluffy. But to get on a nationally-televised baking show, you probably have to have invested at least some of the same devotion and energy into perfecting your cupcakes as Dev did in Italy mastering his pasta-making techniques. Do Dev and the “Clash of the Cupcakes” contestants have more in common than he might like to admit? And if they do, what does it mean that Dev doesn’t acknowledge it? “Master of None” doesn’t even really pose these questions: It spends the two episodes that are most focused on “Clash of the Cupcakes” dealing more with guest hosts, including a dance troupe and a failing magician, than with the bakers themselves.
The show’s real function in “Master of None” is to introduce Dev and us to Chef Jeff. Jeff’s a blowhard and a bit of a bully, but like Dev, he loves food, and through Jeff, Dev has a shot at some of the best food in New York City and an opportunity to combine his love of food and his on-camera presence in something more fulfilling than “Clash of the Cupcakes.” Though Dev sells Jeff on the idea of a collaboration called “BFFs,” for “Best Food Friends,” “Master of None” never quite establishes just how much Dev actually likes Jeff, or whether he’s most fond of the opportunities Jeff gives him.
That ambiguity might have been fine, but for a late-season plot turn in which Dev learns that Jeff may have sexually harassed a colleague. Though Dev is conscientious enough to investigate one specific case in which Jeff may have behaved badly, he’s not decisive enough to confront his business partner, or to pause the development of the show while he figures out what’s going on, all of which culminates in a disastrous morning-show appearance when 14 of Jeff’s accusers come forward. If “Master of None” had a clearer sense of how much Dev actually liked Jeff, how ambitious Dev actually was, or the extent to which a shared interest in food has become the primary way Dev manages his relationships, “Master of None” might have genuinely found a distinct way to tell a highly topical story. But because these issues are undercooked, and because the show immediately pivots away to Dev’s romantic life, this plot felt frustrating. Dev’s stuttering shock at the whole thing is meant to let him off the hook, when in fact it indicts him.
And that pivot brings me to the most overarching plot in “Master of None,” and to me, this season’s greatest failing: Francesca.
A gorgeous Italian who works in the pasta shop where Dev apprentices in Italy, and who begins visiting New York with her boyfriend (and later fiancé) Pino (Riccardo Scamarcio), Francesca is a languid pixie dream girl who has appetites in place of a personality. Specifically, she has Dev’s interests: she loves pasta, she’s willing to stand in line for tapas or accompany Dev to dinner at Jeff’s, she thinks Storm King is stunning.*
Because Dev only ever sees Francesca when she’s essentially on vacation, at loose ends while Pino works in New York, she’s almost endlessly available to him, unencumbered by her little brother, her work at the pasta shop, or even the man she’s supposed to be in love with. “Master of None” makes much of Dev’s longing for her, but doesn’t delve into an ugly truth behind it: to an extent, the fact that Francesca is not technically available is convenient for Dev, who can enjoy all the most pleasurable parts of a relationship with her, without taking on any of the strains and responsibilities of a real long-term romance.
I understand that “Master of None” wanted me to think of the pair as a love so great that it might be worth it for Francesca to throw over her life in Italy and for Dev to see Francesca as the salvation from his crumbling professional life. But as anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows, liking the same things can bring you together, but not hold you together. Narrowing Francesca’s personality, and Dev’s relationship with her, down to the question of fun and pleasure actually makes “Master of None” seem flimsier than it did last season, when Dev and his girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells) were grappling with their careers, the impact of race on their relationship and the actual challenges of living together. Rachel was a person. Francesca is a fantasy. If I thought “Master of None” viewed Dev’s approach to her with extreme trepidation, this might have worked for me. Instead, the show swoons.
Loving food is supposed to be the thing that makes Dev more cosmopolitan: Thanksgiving made him part of the Watkins family, pasta drew him to Italy and “Religion” ends with intercut scenes of Dev’s parents at their mosque and Dev meeting a group of diverse friends at a restaurant, while “I Must Be In A Good Place Now” plays in the background. But the second season of “Master of None” renders that supposed sophistication hollow. Some people say they can’t see race, tossing nuance and disparate experience out with color. At times, Dev seems like someone who can only see taste.
*To be fair, this is a fact, not an opinion.