"Every girl in my phone hates me," Aziz Ansari laments in the excellent new season of Master of None. "Or I hate them."
The sad part: His life only gets more miserable when he turns off his phone and faces the world. In Ansari's Netflix cringe-core comedy, he dissects modern romance as Dev, a thirtysomething semi-employed actor and passionate foodie living in New York, asking himself the same questions over and over. Where is true love? Where is the best taco in town? Will the kitchen at the tapas bar stay open long enough for a romantic-fantasy dinner with my dream girl? When will my dream girl break up with her fiancée? How old do I have to get before I stop lying to my Muslim parents about eating pork during Ramadan? Why do non-Indian people assume all Indian guys know each other? If I'm such a great actor, why did my scene get cut from a slasher flick called The Sickening?
Master of Love dropped as a left-field surprise at the tail end of 2015, and although it initially might have come on as Ansari's own Louie, the show has its own offbeat flair, exploring race and religion along with sex and seafood. And Dev is a much easier guy to spend a half hour with than Louie – a lot less rage and self-pity, a lot more eggplant parm. The second season sparkles even more than the first, as Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang (another Parks and Recreation vet) stretch out to explore the corners of Dev's messy life, which includes friends and exes and doormen, parents and aunts, plus the usual pile-up of bad first dates. As the new episodes begin, Dev recovers from his latest heartbreak by heading off to a small town in Italy, where he studies the art of making pasta, his favourite dish of all. Cooking and dining gives him more satisfaction than looking for love – at least in restaurants he stands a chance of getting what he ordered.
Though he's the centre of the story, the series stretches out with new characters – Bobby Cannavale outdoes himself as a loudmouth asshole cooking-show host, Chef Jeff. Some of the funniest moments feature Dev's parents, played by Ansari's real-life father and mother, who are plainly non-actors and just as plainly delightful. (The way his mom scowls and punches him in the shoulder over dinner shows the comic apple doesn't fall far from the tree in the Ansari family.) In one great episode, he comes to terms with his Muslim upbringing, which he's strained against since childhood. "I remember when my mom took me for the first time," he tells a friend. "I thought I was going to see the Jim Carrey movie The Mask. Then we end up at the mosque."
Master of None still has its own original visual and musical style – loads of vintage soul and hip-hop and new wave, including a few seconds of a Will Powers novelty record I haven't heard since the Eighties and was shocked to remember instantly. But it's really Ansari who raises the stakes this time, playing Dev as a nice guy who isn't quite as nice as he thinks he is. He's picked up dramatic confidence between seasons – in one touching moment, he sits alone in the back of his Uber, brooding to a Soft Cell deep cut, staring into space as he ponders the his next terrible romantic decision. (The episode was directed by Eric Wareheim, who also plays Dev's oafish bearded sidekick Arnold.) He's not even sure if the relationship he's mourning counted as a relationship. As the Soft Cell song says, "It was kind of a so-so love." The line could sum up Dev's life.
Some episodes leave Dev behind to dig deep into his friends' lives. The highlight – Master's absolute peak so far – is the eighth episode "Thanksgiving," delving into the backstory of Dev's longtime friendship with his black lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe), with Angela Bassett as her mom, set around their Thanksgiving dinners over the years. Dev and Denise grow up together, from their Nineties childhood (when they're watching Fresh Prince reruns and digging Da Brat together) to the now, when Denise's mom has to explain what "thot" means. The cliché "I laughed, I cried" doesn't begin to cover it – you will make unexpected (and inconvenient) ugly honking weepy noises all the way through.
You know a comedy is breaking new ground when it can make you choke up when a character raves about bringing her girlfriend to see an Asian New Edition cover band: "The Filipino Johnny Gill was no joke!" It's one of the year's most bold and moving TV moments, with Ansari pitching in as a support player. (The "talking too loud at old people" trick has been done before, but rarely so deftly.) Ansari has said he doesn't think Master of None has enough narrative material for a Season Three. He's wrong about that – it's a dish that calls for more helpings.