Buono, Brutto, Cattivo
I like Master of None just fine. Like Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev – like Ansari himself, in fact – it’s cute and endearing; at times, though, those characteristics can grate as infantile and irritating. There's plenty of stuff I like more: as comedy, it’s not as bleakly hilarious as the circling-the-drain-of-the-kitchen-sink Catastrophe; it’s not as endearingly desperate to make you laugh as 30 Rock-successor Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3 on Netflix now, still boasting its extraordinary combination of pitch-black rape jokes and Airplane!-worthy dad puns).
Season 1 was a hodge-podge of different short films; in Season 2 the variance between episodes – stylistically, qualitatively – is even more pronounced. Ansari has talked a big game about his influences for the show (Antonioni; Manhattan-era Woody Allen); Season 2’s opening shot encompasses a stack of DVDs that hammers this point home. It’s slightly disappointing, then, that his interrogation of their role in stimulating his creative process starts and ends with naked copying of the stylistic flair of these better (-known) film-makers.
From the Italian neorealist ripoff that opens Season 2 to the Instagram-stories-does-Altman anthology movie posturing of its sixth episode, this is lifehack auteurism, Pawnee Rent-A-Swag of someone else’s cultural capital; you won’t see anything here you haven’t seen done before by a different director, and better. And – sure, as episode six’s title, ‘New York, I Love You’ – and its nod to Paris, Je T’aime – suggests, this is all done knowingly (that neorealist ripoff, ‘The Thief’, takes the bare bones of its plot from Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette). But adding a patina of referential irony to something doesn’t make it any more worthy of consideration if it’s not inherently interesting in the first place; the show is especially poorly served in this regard by Ansari himself, who probably meant the title as a Harris Wittels-esque humblebrag. But look at the limited direction, the just-OK scripts, and his one-note acting in the lead role (as uncomplicatedly happy / sad as a pair of Ancient Greek masks) and it’s actually a pretty effective condemnation of the whole enterprise.
With one striking exception: Master of None is the best programme about food currently on TV. It’s no secret that Ansari has a genuine passion for the subject (watch him at Joe Beef and see joy at its purest); per a recent interview with GQ, it’s also no secret that Ansari and cocreator Alan Yang wanted food to play a bigger role in Season 2. The GQ piece celebrates food as “another character” in the new episodes, but to figure it as something that only pops up in cameo is not quite right. It’s more like the fundamental grammar of the show, or the page on which it’s written, or the connective tissue holding everything together – the jungle in Apocalypse Now, the soundtrack in Pulp Fiction.
This is not a show about food; as in real life, food is everywhere about it, instead. In episode 3, it is the medium through which Ansari tells the story about the conflicting demands of religion and family and selfhood; the first slice of oh-so-haram bacon that a young (Muslim) Dev eats at the start of the episode will be transubstantiated into the barbecue ribs he eats in secret with his cousin, and the broccoli with crispy pork he defiantly orders at a Thai place in full view of his aghast parents.
Food is the site of practically every social interaction – whether intimate (the chance lunch Dev shares with Sara in ‘The Thief’; the rolling series of Tinder hookups he goes on in standout ep ‘First Dates’) or wide-angle, like the dinner party hosted by Bobby Canavale’s note-perfect Tony Bourdain clone in episode 5. There is even room for the intimate within the wide-angle, like the slices of jamón ibérico Chef Jeff cuts by hand for Dev and Francesca, a vignette recalling the opening of Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, and the author’s first sight of the Myth of Mario as he places slices of lardo on dinner party guests’ awestruck tongues.
Food is the preserve of the wealthy – the grain-bowl advocates riding through Manhattan in the back of a cab – and of those less fortunate, like the African driver sitting up front, getting ejected and fleeced at nightclubs, his night finishing with sodacup bottle-service in a friend’s fast-food joint. It is everyday (the Mercato Albinelli in Modena); it is for special occasions only (“Francescana is my favourite place” is not a sing I’d necessarily sing, but I can sympathise with the sentiment).
It is something to which you can devote your life, remaining a million miles from mastery even after months of hands-on training (I loved the scene in ‘The Thief’ when Dev’s attempts at tortellini are cast in black and white as either bravo or brutto by a wizened sfolina, like St Paul at the gates of heaven); it is something you consume entirely passively, at one remove, sat on your sofa in front of Clash of the Cupcakes or the probably-shortlived Best Food Friends.
Along with ‘First Dates’, my favourite of the new episodes was probably ‘Thanksgiving’, in which a series of Turkey Days are the backdrop to Season 1 stalwart Denise’s difficult, charged negotiation of how to come out to her mother and how – once out – to bring a partner along to share in the family ritual. This is not Massimo Bottura’s faux-caviar or the Scungilli at Carbone; it is not the funky natural wines at James Murphy’s bar The Four Horsemen. The central conceit aside, there is no formal trickery, no empty homage to better direction. It’s just food, on a table, with people sitting around it, talking.
This is the future of food TV, if it wants to remain (become?) relevant, and interesting. I’m done with pornographic close-ups – surely you are, too. I’m done with toothless competitions with no point of reference for the viewer at home beyond the visual (there’s probably a longer piece to be written about how the pointless risible swoops and streaks still besmirching plates across the country are a direct result of Food TV having no cue other than painterly prettiness with which to suggest skill or quality). I’m done with celebrity chefs using a six-episode show to shill a cookbook of recipes you’ve seen a million times before; I’m done with imperialist travel shows where centuries-old delicacies are “discovered” then strip-mined by human embodiments of the politics of the United Fruit Company.
I’m done with food being partitioned off as a specific autotelic vertical, something that can never leave its niche, and only ever be about itself. As Master of None illustrates so beautifully, food filters through into our lives in the most aleatory of ways: to confine it to specific channels, formats, presenters is to overlook its extraordinary multiplicity and deprive it of its true agency, and relevance, and power. In attempting to master a scarce handful of its many facets, really producers are faithfully representing none of them.