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‘Master of None’ looks beyond ‘cookie-cutter’ version of New York life

The second season of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy looks at the city through a naturalistic lens

Masters of None tried to reflect a more realistic view of New York City
Netflix

Warning: Spoilers abound! If you are unfamiliar with the plot and don’t want the surprise ruined, bookmark this story for later.

Comic Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None became a hit when it debuted in 2015 for more than just his comic timing or deadpan humor. While Ansari’s antics—from romantic travails to searching for the perfect taco—may at first sound like tired spins on millennial stereotypes, his personal storytelling, and the show’s commitment to showing diverse perspectives, help it ably blend goofy moments and introspection.

Despite the plot twists and absurdity, there’s solid grounding in real characters, a strength that carries over to Season 2, which premieres on Netflix May 12. Split between Italy and New York, the show follows Ansari’s character, Dev Shah, as he navigates his comedy and culinary career. New York City is still the main backdrop, according to production designer Amy Williams, and set design and scouting becomes even more integral to the show’s success, helping develop characters and storylines throughout the season. The “small, scrappy” crew, says Williams, was dedicated to bringing Dev’s experiences to life.

Curbed spoke with Williams about the show vision for a New York-based comedy, and the process of translating the writers’ experiences onto the screen.

Italian scenes look to classic cinema style

At the outset of Season 2, Master of None opens in Italy with a beautiful black-and-white episode in the picturesque city of Modena. Dev (Aziz Ansari) is studying cooking in Italy, having fulfilled the promise of last season’s final scene, which finds him en route to Europe.

Williams says the crew sought to recreate the look of classic Italian cinema—the first episode, “Thief,” makes explicit reference to 1948’s The Bicycle Thief—but when it came to picking locations, they relied on Ansari, who spent extensive time in the region during a personal pilgrimage a few years ago and watched a lot of films by directors such as Antonioni and Fellini. (A scene with a checkerboard floor references a pattern from the movie L'Avventura). Shots that linger on public squares and out-of-the-way restaurants, such as Hosteria Giusti, which Ansari visited before, show the difference between dropping into a city for a few days and taking cues from someone who’s lived there for a few months.

The crew also got advice from some of Ansari’s co-stars. The real-life Italian grandmother who inspired the scene in the first episode where an actress teaches Dev to make pasta told him that they shouldn’t film in Italy in the fall, but instead come back in the summer. They took Nonna’s advice and rescheduled the shoot.

Give fans a real view of New York

While the Italian sojourn of the first two episodes offers beautiful shots of the countryside and views of characters traipsing around on Vespas and eating gelato, the return to New York finds the crew also revisiting its low-lit, realistic portrayal of the city. Williams says that Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang wanted to challenge the typical aesthetic of comedy shows and capture a more indie film vibe. That meant naturalistic lighting and a focus on their own personal stories.

“You often see this cookie-cutter version of life in New York,” says Williams. “I wanted to represent it as I know it.”

The recent boom in the New York film and television industry means that literally dozens of shows have provided a contemporary vision of the city. Master of None wanted to portray Aziz and Yang’s life by traveling to their favorite restaurants and neighborhoods, mostly on the Lower East Side. It’s not quite the struggling, scrappy vision of Girls or Broad City.

Williams says that as they bounced between restaurants and bars—such as Baby’s All Right and Alameda—during filming, they aimed to truly recreate an evening out—“this is what one of my nights out would look like”—and tap in Ansari’s real-life experiences.

A family’s changing home helps tell a story

Master of None has an even more explicit foodie focus this season, training its lens on cooking shows, group dinners, and restaurants across New York. The culinary becomes a entry point to explore culture and showcase diversity.

“The food gets more intimate,” says Williams. “It’s all about sharing food with people.”

But perhaps the most affecting set from Season 2 is the Queens apartment of Dev’s friend Denise (played by Lena Waithe) and her mother (played by Angela Basset). During the episode “Thanksgiving,” the show charts more than two decades worth of Thanksgiving dinners, tracing the evolution of a family—an African-American single mother and her lesbian daughter—and a daughter’s process of coming out to her family.

“How does a gay teenager’s bedroom look in the ’90s?” says Williams. “We wanted to represent a real successful, professional mother and her daughter, and the look of a real Queens household. It was so much fun to research those ’90s elements, and bring back all those posters of music stars and actresses and plaster them on the wall.”