Dirt: Master of None s3 is actually great

Less Aziz Ansari; more film student.

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Kyle Chayka reviews the new, third season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None (Netflix), a mid-century literary drama transposed to 2021, with vintage aesthetics to match.

I didn’t know there was a third season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s autofictional Netflix series Master of None coming until it was already available. It didn’t get the kind of hype or advance praise — thirsty Insta stories of screeners, breathless tweets — that might be expected from its universally acclaimed earlier seasons. Of course, Ansari got kind-of cancelled in the interim for sexual misconduct, and the show was essentially about him, right? Bumbling NYC guy with good taste in restaurants and bad luck with women; shitty dates in nice bars; trying to make it in show biz. How could the navel-gazing narrative continue without its main protagonist, whose presence as an actor would probably tank the show in the press?

Yang and Ansari answered that question by focusing the third season almost solely on Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, who in the show has become a bestselling author and married to Alicia, played by a resplendent Naomi Ackie. The couple live together in an enormous, century-old house in upstate New York and the season follows the slow evolution and dissolution of their relationship, making the season’s subtitle “Moments in Love” a bit self-consciously ironic. (“See what we did there?”) Ansari’s character appears briefly but only to let viewers know his own life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would. It’s kind of like a Richard Yates novel but zooming in on two Black, gay women — which is still underselling its freshness, like a breeze from an opened window.

The season is shot on film and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with minimal cuts. Each shot lasts an eternity, especially compared to the current dominant TV and movie aesthetic. It’s an immediate visual departure: the colors are softer and more lush; the compositions are static, like moving paintings; and the editing is quiet and slow, unlike the frenetic pace of every Marvel-adjacent blockbuster or Emily in Paris social-media pastiche (Insta stories are like 100 cuts a minute).

In “Moments in Love” the camera lingers on a couch, a stained glass window filled with light behind the couple’s bed, a dining table while conversation whirls. Turns out as viewers we don’t need the frantic bullshit to have a good time or experience a good story. It also makes innovative use of the streaming medium: the season’s episodes are all different lengths, from 18 minutes to more than 40, fit to the arc of that plot.

Alan Yang’s interview with the podcast Recode Media reveals some of the show’s secrets. For one, the cabin scenes were actually shot in the U.K. countryside instead of upstate New York, and the beautiful interiors are a stage set — too good, too pretty to be true, of course. Now that I know, I notice the bucolic setting is a little too groomed and civilized, as opposed to the detritus of most of actual upstate. But the acting and the costumes (Alicia’s socks, also everything she wears) and the writing are all real and perfect.

The show’s cinematography and dialogue style owe a debt to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, which nothing will ever be as good as — the meditative shots, displaced voiceovers, and tense romantic nostalgia. But the story of Denise and Alicia also reminds me of one of my favorite novels ever, James Salter’s Light Years, from 1975, another unsparing-yet-beautiful portrait of a marriage and its decay (buy it, thank me later).

In the novel, Viri and Nedra are a couple somewhat marooned in a grand house in upstate New York. (Salter even describes what amounts to scenic B-roll, carefully observing the changing seasons, interior decoration, the items on a table.) The couple has two children; Viri is a middlingly successful architect and Nedra a wife and mother, the guardian of the home, perfectly graceful, host of immaculate dinner parties. But they’re both haunted by the paths their lives haven’t traveled, the possibilities of being someone else, with someone else — avoiding the mediocrity of stasis.

Mid-way through the book, Nedra divorces Viri, but their relationship survives, in a way: “They were like old friends; a vast understanding had risen between them,” Salter writes. The same could be said of Denise and Alicia in the stirring coda to the Master of None season. Here’s another line from Light Years:

“There are things I love about marriage. I love the familiarity of it,” Nedra said. “It’s like a tattoo. You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it. You’re hardly even aware of it any more. I suppose I’m very conventional,” she decided.

In both of these stories there is no solution nor resolution to the problem of love; it is simply a fact of life to be appreciated in both its ebb and flow. — By Kyle Chayka

The Dirt: Embrace the stillness.