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'Master Of None' Returns With Mixed Results — And Unanswered Questions

Naomi Ackie as Alicia and Lena Waithe as Denise in season 3 of <em>Master of None</em>.
Naomi Ackie as Alicia and Lena Waithe as Denise in season 3 of <em>Master of None</em>.

First, we must acknowledge that the third season of Netflix's Master of None, on some level, feels like a dodge.

That's because this new crop of episodes isn't focused on the character who dominated the first two seasons of the show; often-hapless actor Dev Shah, played by co-creator, co-writer and director Aziz Ansari. Instead, the third season highlights the marriage of Dev's best friend Denise, played by Lena Waithe — a supporting character featured in the second season episode "Thanksgiving," which won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy for Waithe and Ansari back in 2017 (Waithe made history as the first Black woman to win in the category).

This new season is a pensive, charming, deliberate exploration of how Denise's marriage was affected by her wife Alicia's suggestion that they have a baby. Co-written by Waithe and Ansari and directed by Ansari, it talks about success, failure, self-obsession and the masks we often wear in relationships. And it's a low key, compelling look at an evolving relationship between two strong Black women.

It's a low key, compelling look at an evolving relationship between two strong Black women. But all of that comes with an asterisk.

But all of that comes with an asterisk, because Master of None's new season drops three years after Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman featured in an article on Babe.net, who said he repeatedly pressured her into sexual acts on their only date.

It was a jarring allegation, in part, because so much of Master of None focused on Dev's attempts to find romance. Worse, the show's second season ended with Dev pulled into a scandal after his co-host on a food/travel show is accused of sexual harassment. In his 2019 standup comedy special for Netflix, Aziz Ansari: Right Now, the comic briefly addressed the #metoo-centered furor created by the Babe.net story, saying, "ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward."

Still, Ansari hasn't spoken much publicly about the scandal, which led him to duck out of the limelight just after Master of None had turned him into one of TV's hottest talents. The five-episode season, titled "Moments in Love," is out Sunday, about four years after the last season debuted. They feel a bit like the comic's way of sneaking back into the premium TV universe without really addressing the scandal that led him to leave in the first place.

Which is a shame, because there is a lot to like in these new episodes. As the season opens, Denise and Alicia are living in a comfortably rustic home outside New York City — bought with the proceeds from Denise's first book, a New York Times bestseller.

At first glance, they have a perfect life, living in a charming home, gilded with touches of Afrocentric art and home design, nestled in a bucolic setting. Alicia has a Ph.D. in chemistry but hopes to build a career in interior design; Denise is working on a second book, her blunt charm balanced by Alicia's playful charisma.

But Denise is struggling to balance her new fame with writing — she's smoking a little too much weed and ignoring Alicia in the process. When Dev does show up, he visits their home with a girlfriend who seems a perfect match until their playful banter devolves into a bitter fight, through a clumsy bit of foreshadowing.

Moments later, sitting outside with Denise, Dev reveals his embarrassment over being stuck in a dead-end job after his acting/hosting career collapsed. "We used to have it so good, running around New York, doing whatever we wanted, having fun every day," Dev tells Denise, sounding a lot like he might be channeling the sentiments of Ansari himself. "I never realized how good I had it."

It's tough to describe many more details without spoiling important revelations. But British actress Naomi Ackie is a revelation as Alicia, bringing a grounded determination to her efforts to have a baby and build the life she wants. Waithe, whom I have often found a severely limited performer in other roles, does well inhabiting Denise — who seems her fictionalized doppelganger.

It's as if Ansari is hiding behind the power of Denise and Alicia's story, hoping the response to its quality might blunt any new attempt to cancel or criticize him.

Still, the connection of the third season's themes to Ansari's own personal situation is irritating and persistent. Master of None's creative team may have had valid reasons to wrench the show's focus over to a supporting character. But in Denise's rise and fall, the comic seems to be commenting on his own real-life travails in a way that allows him to avoid engaging with onetime fans who might feel betrayed or disappointed by his actions.

It's as if Ansari is hiding behind the power of Denise and Alicia's story, hoping the response to its quality might blunt any new attempt to cancel or criticize him. But this season of Master of None deserves better; it shouldn't come to viewers handicapped by residual ambivalence over a co-creator who has never fully explained himself.

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