Can “Master of None” Survive Aziz Ansari’s Scandal? We Still Don’t Know.

Lena Waithe as Denise, left, and Naomi Ackie as Alicia in Master of None (Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix)

The second season of Master of None—a show created by actor and comedian Aziz Ansari—demonstrated that men can be softer and emotionally available when they ditch toxic masculinity. By depicting Dev’s (Ansari) platonic relationships and exploring storylines about loneliness and emotional processes, Master of None was a breath of fresh air. Ansari’s reputation as a male feminist innovating our understanding of masculinity, however, took a huge hit in 2018 when a woman accused him of coercing her into having sex. “Grace” alleged that Ansari ignored her verbal and non-verbal cues as he aggressively pursued her in his apartment after a date. The allegations against Ansari certainly soured Master of None: What was previously a wonderful vehicle for Ansari, who had been typecast as a secondary character for most of his career, became tainted because of his actions.

The third season of Master of None, released on May 23, is clearly shifting focus away from its frontman’s controversies, spotlighting Denise (Lena Waithe) and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie) as we follow their romantic relationship—from domestic bliss to breakup—through a cinematic style that’s much less frenetic than previous seasons. Most of the five-episode season is set in a house in the country, where Denise and Alicia are constructing their lives together, rather than in New York City. As if to show that the characters have matured, the cinematography is slower, more poetic and filmlike rather than focused on narrative and characters. The camera lingers, for example, on different parts of the house and how they change according to what’s happening to the characters. Dev appears only a few times onscreen to offer emotional support.

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This decentering of Ansari’s character is somewhat jarring: While Dev was previously characterized as a man who could emotionally process and deeply connect, this season he appears simply as Denise’s confidante, not revealing much about his life or about previous characters featured in the show. Denise is writing her second book while coming down from the high of a critically-acclaimed first, and Alicia works in an antique store. There are moments of domestic bliss where the two women move through the everyday motions of living together joyfully, dancing while folding laundry and having nonsensical late- night conversations in bed. While it’s clear that Denise and Alicia have chemistry, they eventually hit an impasse: Alicia wants to be a mother, but Denise is unsure if parenthood is in the cards for her. This conflict exposes the show’s emotional unavailability: Denise is unwilling to have an honest conversation with Alicia about her reservations.

In fact, Denise is never really up for any honest conversations about emotions: It almost feels like the silences between the couple are supposed to say a lot, but we never truly understand why Denise is so unavailable to her wife. The result is that Master of None loses one of its most compelling components: the unflinching emotional honesty that was so present in earlier seasons. This is perhaps why the fourth episode, which focuses on Alicia’s attempts to go through in-vitro fertilization by herself, stands apart from the other four. After a miscarriage that catalyzes her breakup with Denise, Alicia is determined to have a baby on her own and not let her dream of having a family depend on a partner. Alicia’s journey details the difficulties of solo in-vitro fertilization, a reproductive choice made by an increasing number of people with uteruses, and the remarkably talented Ackie doesn’t hold back in depicting the emotional and logistical realities of Alicia’s undertaking—among them the enormous expense of IVF (and the queerphobic health-insurance policies that often refuse to cover it) and the emotional and mental toll the procedure can take on those who undergo it.

It’s almost as if Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe are no longer willing to be honest with their audience through the characters we’ve come to know them through.

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After Alicia figures out how to move ahead with the process, she struggles to give herself a subcutaneous hormone injection. Seeking support, she calls her mother who lives in the United Kingdom for support, expressing how alone she feels at that moment. In a scene that illustrates both Alicia’s loneliness and her mother’s love and support, they talk through the injection process until she’s comfortable enough to give herself the shot. It’s a moment reminiscent of the show’s original proposal. Unlike parents who go through IVF together, Alicia is responsible for everything: financing the process, injecting herself, getting herself to the clinic for procedures, and working. In stolen moments during her shifts at the vintage store, Alicia gives herself hormone injections and receives news from the doctor’s office, weathering it all mostly by herself, with the support of friends and family she speaks to over the phone. The lingering message is that taking control of your life will be worth it, but it can also be lonely, difficult, and full of ups and downs.

Alicia’s IVF journey is the best part of Master of None’s new season because it reminds the viewer of what the show used to stand for: the joys and the hardships of living a full emotional life. The change in pace and scope of the show is certainly interesting—and at times the cinematography really is wonderful to watch—but it’s also somewhat jarring and conspicuous to move the narrative away from Dev given the context of the allegations against Ansari. Denise’s emotional unavailability is also confounding. It’s almost as if Ansari and Waithe are no longer willing to be honest with their audience through the characters we’ve come to know them through. In that sense, Alicia’s storyline feels like one that saves the show from itself.

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Nicole Froio, a Brazilian woman with short, blonde hair, poses on a concrete balcony
by Nicole Froio
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Nicole Froio is a writer and researcher currently based in South Florida. She has just submitted her PhD thesis on masculinity, sexual violence, and the media. She writes about women’s rights, Brazilian politics, books, and many other topics.