Italian Cinema, Dance Music, and TED Talks: A Master of None Summer To-Do List
Master of None is a series that wears an impressive number of different (and probably expensive and tasteful) hats: it’s a romance comedy that studies millennial anxieties; it’s an immigrant’s story, an American story, and a New York City story; it’s also funny, poignant, insightful, and indulgent. The tissue that connects these various and ambitious elements of the series is taste, as Master is also a show about obscure music, fresh pasta, Italian cinema, Reality TV, and Modern Art. Dev, the series’ protagonist, has a voracious appetite that he constantly attempts to sate with new experiences, cuisines, and cultures. These are the tastes of series creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, who meticulously outfit Dev with their own inspirations. Master of None‘s formal flourishes – the esoteric music cues, black and white episodes, and specific culinary references – are grounded in Dev’s reality.
The world of Master of None is textured by the these inspirations, and in that spirit, this collection of books, shows, movies, and music is a fitting expansion of your media diet after finishing Master of None’s second season. Some of these influenced the season explicitly, while others share a spiritual kinship or a tangential relation to Dev’s lovelorn plight, little nuggets from Dev’s world to help satisfy your own insatiable appetite for Master of None.
Bicycle Thieves – Vittoria Di Sica, 1949
Season 2 begins with Dev nearing the end of his pasta apprenticeship in Modena, the therapeutic sabbatical he took after his romantic life fell apart at the conclusion of Season 1. In “The Thief,” the season’s first episode, Dev chances into a romantic connection in Modena before his phone – and her number – are stolen on the street. The episode then adopts the Bicycle Thieves aesthetic: vivid black and white photography, overhead shots of foot chases through piazzas, scenes in cramped Italian apartments, and sequences that unfold in winding alleys. Additionally, “The Thief” updates the plot of Bicycle Thieves for the information age. In that Italian classic, Ricci, the film’s protagonist, must find the thief that stole his bicycle, lest he lose the job that provides for his young family. Dev – finding love as scarce a commodity as Ricci found work to be in post-war Italy – must find his phone, or squander the sole promising romantic connection he’s made abroad.
Bicycle Thieves turns a common occurrence into a desperate search, and ends with a quietly crushing resolution. Master of None toys with those themes, applying Ricci’s life-or-death crisis to Dev’s increasing loneliness. “The Thief” stands alone as an enjoyable, distinguished installment of Master of None, but Bicycle Thieves gives the episode an additional, heartbreaking layer.
L’Avventura – Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Early in L’Avventura, friends Anna and Claudia are driving to Rome to meet Anna’s fiancé, Sandro, before the three take a Mediterranean boat trip. Anna, having not seen Sandro for nearly a month, is forlorn. She explains her feelings to Claudia with a line that would fit nicely in Master of None: “It’s difficult keeping a relationship going with one person here and the other there. But it’s convenient. Because you can imagine whatever you like… Whereas when someone’s right in front of you, that’s all you get.”
Tension crowds Antonioni’s film until its very last shot, a conflicted gesture of acceptance between two lovers tied to one another by ennui and guilt. Sandro begins an illicit romance with Claudia after Anna disappears during a stop on the cruise, and their relationship builds under a gathering cloud of guilt. As they steal kisses and make love while ostensibly searching for Anna, the film unfolds slowly and steadily, quietly shifting its focus from Anna’s disappearance to the crushing shame that Sandro and Claudia feel – and the existential disenchantment that births their romance in the first place.
It’s fitting that Dev and his unavailable crush, Francesca, draw together while watching L’Avventura on a snowy night, free from the encroaching presence of Pino, Francesca’s fiancé. Their romance weaves through Master of None’s second season, and climactic episodes draw heavily from the spirit of pessimism and weariness that characterize L’Avventura. Echoing Claudia and Sandra, Dev and Francesca draw toward one another with an attraction forged as much by their common unhappiness as their common interests.
Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari, 2015
Ansari’s first book, a well-researched investigation of romantic ritual in the information age, will resonate with Master of None viewers. Ansari’s standup, series, and book set him apart from peers as a uniquely insightful navigator of modern hurdles. Modern Romance enlists NYU sociology professor Erick Klinenberg, who helps apply data and academic theory to Ansari’s exploration of romantic absurdities like Tinder, Sexting, and social media etiquette. This is well-covered subject matter for Ansari, and fans of his standup comedy or Master of None will recognize his anxious insight in this book. It’s pleasant and insightful, required reading for fans of the series.
The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz, 2004
This book on psychology, subtitled “How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction,” was eerily prescient when published in 2004. Schwartz, a renowned psychologist, illustrates how overwhelming consumer choices beget anxiety and prevent real satisfaction, but the message of the book’s thesis is especially resonant a decade after its publication, in the current world of infinite social choice. The Paradox of Choice was penned in the era before Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Fake News, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Seamless, or Uber. Some of Schwartz’s illustrative hypotheticals – like being overwhelmed by a department stores selection of jeans – feel downright quaint now. Choice has multiplied considerably since the work originally hit shelves, but Ansari shepherds Schwartz’s investigation into the digital age, applying the book’s concepts to choices ranging from professional, social, and romantic.
If a book is too much commitment, you can also watch a brief TED Talk, with Schwartz speaking about the ideas in his book here. This is the Rosetta stone of Master of None’s language, a founding document of Dev’s modern ennui.
Atlanta, FX, 2016 – present & Louie, FX, 2010 – present
Atlanta and Louie are distinctly different than Master of None in terms of the stories the two FX shows tell. Atlanta, besides taking place in Atlanta and not New York, examines a slice of life that is decidedly less privileged and comfortable than the one Dev enjoys. The protagonists of Atlanta strive, just like Dev, but their successes are smaller and fewer, their failures have dire consequences, and their prospects are narrower. Louie is a New York show that represents a generational departure from Master of None, with a protagonist that is older, more established, and more concerned with deriving value from life after all the choices have already been made. Master of None, and to a certain extent, Atlanta, are concerned with the struggles of twenty-somethings desperately searching for purpose, a paycheck, or both. In Louie, the purpose, the paycheck, the failed marriage, and the kids are already a part of the story. Louie’s protagonist pushes back against the regrets that the characters in Master of None and Atlanta fear.
For all their differences, these three shows represent a new style of storytelling, one driven by character and atmosphere as much as plot. Each of them build effective, colorful universes that expand far beyond the episodic problems of their main characters. The three shows take similar diversions, sidelining characters and shifting their focus with agility and speed that reflects a sort of storytelling attention deficit. It’s no coincidence that these three shows belong to renaissance-style creators with stand-up comedy, television writing, film writing, and – in one case – musical experience. CK, Ansari, and Atlanta creator Donald Glover represent a new generation of auteurs, and their shows tell stories with a confidence of vision that stands apart from other prestige television fare.
Classics of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan, 2011
Season two of Master of None begins with a shot of Dev asleep in a bed between two night stands. A stack of DVD’s, including the films written about above, rests on one table. On the other there is a stack of cookbooks. A few of those books bear the same name: Marcella Hazan. Hazan is a legend in the culinary world, credited with introducing Italian techniques to Western Europe and America, and her name is now synonymous with Italian cuisine. She passed away in 2013, but watch this Mind of a Chef clip of a ninety year-old Hazan cooking a veal shank with Chef April Bloomfield only a short time before her passing:
She is matter-of-fact and expert, guiding Bloomfield by feel; more than once, she instructs Bloomfield to adjust seasoning using only her sense of smell. It makes sense that Dev would turn to Hazan’s writing to guide his Italian apprenticeship – the show fixates on Dev’s search for a purpose, and she’s a true master.
“The Final Nights of Paradise Garage #1 and #2” – Larry Levan
Music in Master of None, like music in Louie and Atlanta, is curated with purpose and specificity. Obscure references abound, from old Italian movie scores to forgotten club tracks, giving a unique style to Dev’s experience. In an interview with Vulture, the show’s music supervisor, Zach Cowie, described how he, Yang, and Ansari choose music for Master of None: “Woody Allen’s New York is jazz. Louis C.K.’s New York is jazz. What’s our New York? We came up with this Paradise Garage sound.”
The “Paradise Garage sound” he’s refers to is the sound of New York City DJ Larry Levan, who played regularly at the city’s now defunct dance club Paradise Garage in the 1970’s and ‘80s. Levan’s mixes – you can find them on Youtube, Soundcloud, or Mixcloud – flutter between disco, soul, funk, house, avante garde, and new wave. The DJ’s appetite for new sound matches Dev’s constant quest for experience, making a Levan a fitting counterpoint for the breed of Urban Millienial typified in Master of None.