As Aziz Ansari steps out of the spotlight, Waithe and Naomi Ackie star in the most raw, honest and utterly compelling portrait of a relationship that’s likely to be produced this year
After a four-year hiatus, Emmy Award-winning comedy-drama Master of None (Netflix) is back. And it returns, in some ways, a very different show to the one that first aired between 2015 and 2017. Most noticeably, its co-creator Aziz Ansari is no longer the star, having stepped back from the spotlight following an incident in January 2018 when he was publicly accused of inappropriate behaviour on a date (he has since addressed what happened in his 2019 stand-up special Right Now).
With Ansari’s character Dev, a struggling actor, sidelined to just a couple of appearances this season, the show instead switches focus to his writer friend Denise (Lena Waithe) and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie in a phenomenal, career-best performance). The decision turns out to be a masterstroke, with Waithe and Ackie delivering the most raw, honest and utterly compelling portrait of a relationship that’s likely to be produced this year.
When we meet them in the first episode, Denise and Alicia are living in a bucolic idyll: a gorgeous farmhouse complete with clucking chickens in upstate New York, which careful viewers will note looks almost exactly like the British countryside (where it was actually filmed). The couple’s splendid isolation has been funded by the success of Denise’s first book, the glowing New Yorker review of which she keeps proudly displayed on her fridge. Yet she’s struggling to write her second, and through the haze of the joints she’s constantly smoking can barely see that her wife is slipping away from her. A “serious” conversation instigated by Alicia, about whether the couple should have children, sets the story in motion.
To make it clear that this season represents a whole new narrative for the show, it carries the subtitle “Moments in Love”. It’s apparently a deliberate nod to Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, which is not the only inspiration that Bergman provides. Ansari, who directs all five episodes of the new season, lets his camera linger as scenes play out slowly in the Swedish auteur’s style. These long, beguiling sequences don’t merely resonate with tension and emotion, they positively ache.
Most of the credit here must surely go to Waithe, who co-wrote this entire season with Ansari. They have form together, having won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy in 2017 for the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving”, which took us with Denise on her difficult journey to coming out to her mother. After that, in 2019, Waithe teamed up again with “Thanksgiving” director Melina Matsoukas for their debut feature film, Queen & Slim, the sublime road movie starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith that made a convincing case for Waithe being among the finest screenwriters of her generation.
Master of None: Moments in Love is work of that same calibre. It has it all. In one scene, Waithe gives a hysterical anecdote about a child’s toy car that would kill at the Comedy Store. In another, the show makes an impassioned point about the failure of insurance companies to support queer women who wish to become pregnant, all without losing sight of the heart and soul of the story. Some early reviews have dismissed the season as overly slow and meandering. Don’t listen to them. It may take its time, but good things come to those who Waithe.