The French have a phrase, “la douleur exquise”, which translates literally as “the exquisite pain”. It describes the agony of wanting someone who doesn’t want you back, or who you can’t be with. It also pretty perfectly describes the second of Master of None, the Netflix show co-created by and starring Aziz Ansari.
Like prodding a mouth ulcer with your tongue, Master of None makes you wince with hurt, but a hurt so good you’ll keep coming back for more.
The show’s second season, which arrived on Netflix last Friday, does so much so well. It’s gorgeously shot. The music is unfailingly perfect. The writing raises the bar for depicting male/female and male/male friendship on screen, for discussing issues of race and religion and sexuality, for the way it highlights the pitfalls and pratfalls of the dating industrial complex.
From the opening episode, aired in black and white and set in Modena, Italy, it’s clear that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have really honed their craft between series. There is a confidence, a certainty of purpose that is lacking in shows by more seasoned creators.
Thematically, stylistically, and narratively, Master of None season two is near perfect in execution. But what it does so much better than any other show is capture “la douleur exquise”, and this elevates the half-hour comedy into an art form.
After struggling as an actor in the first season, Dev circa season two is a successful TV presenter with his own cable show, Clash of the Cupcakes. He has a group of incredibly supportive friends. He gets invited to dinner parties where John Legend drops a casual after-dinner song. He has a close relationship with his family, and is well liked by just about everyone. But it’s not enough. He’s not happy. Success is no insulation from despair.
At the heart of his troubles is his friendship with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), an Italian he met in Modena who comes to visit New York with her fiancé, Pino. While Pino works, Dev shows Francesca the sights and tastes of the city. As they spend more time together, their chemistry is clear, and despite trying to date other women, Dev finds himself falling for Francesca. The attraction is clearly mutual, but Francesca has been with Pino forever, and isn’t about to leave him and her family back in Italy. So the pair remain friends.
Dev soldiers on, even as his friends try to warn him that it won’t end well. As his boss Chef Jeff (a masterful Anthony Bourdain riff by Bobby Cannavale, who lights up every scene he’s in), tells Dev: “You better grab a mitt because you're going to catch some feelings.”
The thing is, Dev knows what he’s getting into. Like any committed ulcer-prober, he does it anyway. Here’s where Master of None excels. Unlike similar sad sitcom clown, BoJack Horseman, Dev’s feelings aren’t poured into benders – yes he drinks and takes hits from his weed pen, but not with the self-destructive bent of his equine channel mate. Instead, Dev takes comfort in his friends, his family, and food (seriously, watch MoN on full stomach otherwise you’ll be dialling Deliveroo once an episode – the culinary delights on display are so mouth watering the show should be called Master of Food).
He doesn’t complain about being “friend-zoned” or expect to be rewarded for his niceness. He doesn’t overstep any boundaries, but waits for the signals. This isn’t a show that shies away from male emotions. Nobody makes Dev feel bad for feeling. He thinks it over, asks advice, and when it all gets too much, tells Francesca how he feels. I screamed “just kiss her!” at the screen several times. But Dev knows better. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a mature, measured, modern look at longing from the man who literally wrote the book called Modern Romance.
In a season full of stand-out episodes, never is Master of None’s masterful marriage of style and substance more effective than in a scene at the end of episode five, ‘The Dinner Party’. As Dev is escorting Francesca home in an Uber, she marvels at how wonderful the evening was, thanks him, and, with a hug, leaves. We are left in the cab with Dev as his smile sinks, his sullen face staring out of the window, the synth strains of Soft Cell’s 1981 electro pop cut ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, playing over the top. We stay there with him. The whole ride. Five minutes of sad eyes, exasperated sighs, and deep, unrequited longing, sans dialogue.
For anyone who knows the exquisite pain of a perfect evening in the company of someone you can’t have; the sweet, sweet agony of knowing, every second you’re with them that when the night is over they’ll go home to someone else; the masochistic desire to do it anyway, again, and again, and again, it’s heartbreaking and brutal and beautifully rendered.
It’s also a scene that a lesser show might have cut short. But Ansari and Yang aren’t interested in pulling punches. They want you to hurt. And when Dev leaves that cab at the end of the song, they know you’re going to come back for more. This is only halfway. There are still five episodes of the season remaining.
Master of None season 2 is a masterclass in masculinity and human emotion. Grab a mitt, because you’re going to catch some feelings.