Is Master of None more than just lifestyle porn?

Taste, not just food, is a fundamental concern of the show. (contains spoilers)

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It’s been described as “a gastronomic and visual feast” and “an elegantly presented, thoughtfully created, and sublimely delicious 10-course tasting menu”. Yes, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None returned to Netflix over this weekend, and it’s as appetising as ever. Food has long been a primary concern of the show, and much of the coverage has centred around the amazing meals on display throughout seasons one and two.

Taste, more broadly, is a fundamental concern of Master of None, not just in the (gorgeous) aesthetics of the show itself: from Dev’s exposed brick apartment to the plethora of beautiful restaurant interiors, to Arnold’s weird… nautical… house (?), to the arthouse influences at work in episodes like “The Thief” and “Amarsi Un Po”. It also bleeds into the ways in which characters interact with one another and the types of characters the show values – something that becomes increasingly clear in season two.

It starts as Dev heads to Italy to learn a more authentic approach to pasta, and immediately connects with Francesca (who, not coincidentally, looks like she’s stepped out of a Fellini frame), for her sophisticated tastes: a love of classic Italian music, art history and, yes, food. Meanwhile Francesca’s boyfriend Pino is mocked for his less sophisticated passion: tiles. Dev and love interest Sara bond over their shared desire to eat at a tiny, critically acclaimed restaurant and her “lovely”, “charming” British accent. When Arnold arrives, his friendship is demonstrated by his ability to secure a table at an exclusive restaurant with an extensive tasting menu.

Back in New York, Dev is charmed by Chef Jeff thanks to his habit of treating Dev to exciting meals, unnecessary gifts of champagne and glamorous parties at his fancy apartment with his famous friends. Etiquette is a primary concern of Dev’s, as he chides Arnold, Brian and Francesca for not acting appropriately around famous people (don’t ask John Legend for a photo at your famous mate’s house), while in “First Dates”, he balks at the rudeness of many of his dates, but forgives one a 15-minute phone call thanks to her apology gift: an expensive bottle of wine. Arnold and Dev debate which restaurants are most likely to spark romance (”classy cocktails”: “hidden”, “intimate”), while Dev’s feelings for Francesca (and, spoiler alert, vice versa) peak at one of Jeff’s fancy parties, Storm King and on a helicopter trip around New York.

Of course, the lifestyle on show here didn’t happen by accident. “We agreed Dev should have decent money from his commercials (Gogurt, Wendy's voiceover, Garden Depot) and national commercials actually pay a decent amount,” Aziz Ansari explained on Reddit. “We mainly did this to differentiate from the other New York shows where characters are younger and not doing as well work wise.”

It could start to feel like the show is a type of elitist lifestyle porn – but Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang deliberately move away from that in later episodes. In “New York I Love You”, “Door #3” and “Thanksgiving”, we delve into less self-consciously glamorous stories: a farcical few hours of a doorman of a classy apartment building, a day in the life of a deaf woman who works at a convenience store, a seemingly bad day for a cinema-going cab driver who gets spoiled for an upcoming movie and rejected at the door of a club. We get insights into the complex lives of more marginal characters: Brian’s father’s loneliness, or, in a particularly special episode, Denise’s upbringing and experience coming out to her family. These are bold departure’s from Dev’s more breezy storylines, and some of the series’ best moments.

But as the Francesca situation moves forward, Dev’s plotline (and Ansari’s acting) takes on new depths. He struggles with the idea that the relationship is a fantasy, and tries to interrogate where the substance in it might lie. When the camera lingers on Dev’s sad expression after Francesca leaves him sat in the back of a taxi, while Soft Cell sing sadly, “I tried to make it work / You in a cocktail skirt / And me in a suit”, you get a sense that Dev wants more than a glamorous lifestyle to feel satisfied.

Of course, the show’s biggest takedown of relationships based on taste alone is (yes, massive spoiler alert) the collapse of Chef Jeff’s nice guy persona in the finale, which suggests that there are no such thing as Best Food Friends. While Arnold and Dev are best friends who coach each other through work and dating and happen to share a pretty consuming passion for food, Chef Jeff is disgraced as a sexual predator and master manipulator- someone Dev should definitely have tried to get to know better before posing for enormous posters captioned “BBFs” with.

Master of None is not simply tasteful; it is engaged with the meaning of taste, and the problems inherent in fetishizing it. The result is a show that is yes, beautiful, and often causes twinges of envy – but one that is also curious, empathetic, and ultimately satisfying.

Anna Leszkiewicz is deputy culture editor of the New Statesman.