“Master of None” often dwells in romantic uncertainty. The characters in the Netflix comedy series have pondered: How sure are you — put a percentage on it! — that your significant other is your soul mate? And if you spend lots of time with a woman who happens to be engaged, is that the beginning of your against-all-odds-love story or a road map to heartache?
Now that Aziz Ansari is caught in a real-life situation that is quite unclear — a first date of his says their night together wasn’t consensual, while he says it was — “Master of None’s” star and co-creator (with Alan Yang) has an opening to explore the difference between romantic pursuit and coercion.
As far as we know, this was an isolated incident that probably won’t end Ansari’s career or kill his popular series; the allegations against Ansari are not in Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer territory. But his reputation will need some rebuilding. And since “Master of None” already deals with dating dilemmas, Ansari could use his popular series to explore how courtship could be more consensual.
Even before the #MeToo movement, journalists and researchers have called attention to the ways in which entertainment casts a man’s aggressive or coercive pursuit of a woman as “romantic.” In romantic comedies, for example, a man pursuing a woman despite her protestations is seen as proof of his devotion, not cause for a restraining order. A 2015 study found that, if a viewer thinks a romantic comedy is realistic, they’re more likely to agree with myths such as: “Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and changed their minds afterward,” or “An individual who goes to the extremes of stalking must really feel passionately for his or her love interest.”
“Master of None” has played with that paradox. In Season 1, the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen” shows Diana (Condola Rashad) being followed home by a man she’d already turned down at a bar. He bangs on her front door, screaming: “Come on. Give a nice guy a shot.” When she asks him to leave, and he won’t, she calls 911. Meanwhile, the worst thing that happens to Ansari’s character Dev Shah on his walk home from the same bar is that he accidentally steps in dog poop.
That episode ends with Dev getting into an argument with his girlfriend Rachel about his failure to recognize the sexism in an interaction she has with a male director right in front of him. “There are a lot of subtle little things that happen to me and all women, even in our little progressive world,” she says. “When somebody, especially my boyfriend, tells me that I’m wrong without having any way of knowing my personal experience, it’s insulting.”
Dev concedes that Rachel has a point. “I guess there’s no way I’ll ever really know what it’s like to be in your shoes,” he says. “So I’ll try and do a better job of listening.”
Now Ansari has some more listening to do, and the results are likely to show up in the series. “Those two seasons are really personal,” Ansari told GQ magazine about last year. “Now I need a minute to refill my notebook. My life has not progressed enough for me to write Season 3 yet.”
Now that his life has progressed, perhaps differently as he would have scripted it, how might Ansari’s date with Grace — and the controversy that has followed — figure into to Season 3? Here are some ideas.
First, a listening tour. When we left off in Season 2, several women who had worked with Dev’s TV co-host Chef Jeff accused Jeff of harassing them; it’s a #MeToo story line before the movement took off.
A self-reflective man like Ansari might wonder: Is Grace the first of my hookups to feel coerced and uncomfortable, or have there been others? It’s all the rage right now among men, including famous ones, to call old girlfriends and inquire about their past behavior. In Season 3, the allegations against Jeff might lead Dev to do his own listening tour. He could reach out to ex-girlfriends like Rachel (Noel Wells) but also more casual encounters to ask, as tactfully as possible, how they felt. “Master of None” is told largely from Dev’s point of view, but it could show an encounter from the woman’s perspective, much like the perspective flip of that Season 1 walking-home episode.
The funny and charming Netflix show “Lovesick,” now in its third season, is built all around calls like these. When the protagonist Dylan (Johnny Flynn) learns he has chlamydia, he makes a list of the women he’s slept with, informs them of his diagnosis and suggests they get tested. The calls become a device to revisit these past relationships.
Second, bring on the self-reflection. Season 2 opened with travel to Modena, Italy, where Dev learned to make pasta. In Season 3, how about a trip to the Netherlands or Sweden, where sex education is far more comprehensive than in the United States? This is a comedy, so play it for laughs, sure — put Dev in a Dutch kindergarten class, which is where sex education starts there.
And then go more serious by plopping Dev in a sex therapist’s office back in New York, where he can learn to cultivate his “sex esteem,” also known as expressing his desire in a way that gives his partner a chance to say yes or no.
In “Master of None,” as in many rom-coms, the sidekicks are full of wisdom. Denise (Lena Waithe) and Arnold (Eric Wareheim) often call Dev out on his rude or delusional behavior. Just imagine how they might gently admonish Dev for not having listened to a woman who wants to slow things down. Or what stories they might share from their past. As a lesbian, Denise has plenty of experience seducing or being seduced by women; surely she could teach Dev a thing or two and help him become a more empathic partner.
And third, let’s find Dev a love interest who pursues him. Season 2 centers on Dev’s obsession with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), who is engaged to Pino, her longtime boyfriend. But Dev can’t resist the pull of the unattainable woman, this Euro pixie dream girl who’s entranced by the miniatures at Duane Reade. The archetype is so 2009.
Instead, what would it be like to see a woman pursuing Dev? Someone whose agency in courtship (ahem, the opposite of Francesca) intrigues and challenges Dev without overpowering him. At first he might not know how to react. After all, Hollywood tells us that women should hang back and wait to be pursued; anyone who flips that script is usually painted as desperate and undesirable. But this switch is happening in real life, too, on the dating app Bumble, where women are required to make the first move, and in same-sex relationships, which are challenging courtship norms.
Dev won’t be ready for this kind of match right away. First, he’ll need to do some soul-searching.