Binge-watching the series took me back to last summer’s March for Black Trans Lives
in Brooklyn, New York, where the size and the intensity of the crowds were staggering. It was, for me, one of the most incredibly poignant and democratic moments in American history, when Black people relegated to the margins came to celebrate, not just defend, their humanity and show why doing so is key to building beloved communities around the world.
The season’s official title
, “Master of None: Moments of Love,” draws inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s magisterial 1973 portrait about the ebb and flow of love, “Scenes from a Marriage.” Bergman’s use of close-ups allowed the camera and hence the audience to almost eavesdrop on the emotional unraveling of a marriage with an intimacy that introduced a new cinematic grammar into the world.
“Master of None” originally launched in 2015 as an amiable comedy — punctuated by moments of dramatic longing — about an Indian-American aspiring actor and his group of friends. The quest for the perfect restaurant to take a prospective date while navigating the shoals of the entertainment industry, for example, provided a mixture of laughter and bittersweet realization of fading youth.
By contrast, the five episodes of “Moments of Love” fundamentally move the series away from being a comedy-drama focused on rising star Dev Shah (played by actor Aziz Ansari, who directed this season’s episodes) and his efforts to become a successful entertainer while searching for love in New York City. They transform the story into a meditative, insightful examination of a married Black lesbian couple experiencing the highs and lows of professional success and personal ennui.
This season, Denise (played by Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the season’s episodes) takes center stage. Viewers of previous seasons of the show will see how she has matured from Dev’s weed-smoking friend (and sometime sidekick) into a bestselling author struggling to write a follow-up novel while living in a gorgeous upstate New York home she shares with Alicia (played by the luminous Naomi Ackie), her British wife (a PhD in chemistry turned interior designer). Although Dev pops up in a couple of episodes, the season is entirely devoted to exploring the inner tumult and emotional evolution of Denise and Alicia’s relationship.
Not everyone has been overjoyed by this narrative shift. Some “Master of None” fans who flocked to the show for Dev’s easy and familiar brand of humor have expressed displeasure
. Much of the criticism has focused on the season’s gorgeous visual aesthetic, shot by Ansari in 4:3 aspect on 16 millimeter film and reminiscent of European art house cinema from yesteryear, such as the French New Wave classic “Breathless.” Others have viewed the series’ new direction cynically as an overcorrection, an effort by Ansari to rehabilitate his image
after a #MeToo-related scandal from several years back.
This season comes at a time when Waithe, best known as the creator of the urban drama, “The Chi” on Showtime and for appearing in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” has also been facing criticism
for allegedly exploiting Black trauma in the Amazon series “Them.” (Warner Bros., who produced and distributed Spielberg’s film, shares a parent company with CNN.) Critics argued that “Them” turned the very pain of Black trauma into a kind of horror porn that undercut whatever realism the series aspired toward.
Despite this criticism, what Ansari in his directing and Waite in her writing and acting have accomplished with this season is unique — and crucial. Television and movies rarely investigate the personal and professional ambitions of Black queer couples. Denise and Alicia represent a breakthrough in this regard; their intelligence and professional ambitions define parts of who they are, just as their struggles to conceive a child represent another aspect of their individual selves and their hopes to expand their family.
Arguably the most subversive aspect of this season dwells in its real estate: it is the amazing house they live in
— a beautifully-appointed rustic home, elegantly spacious but cozy and picturesque. For those unaware that entire generations of successful Black folk — many with homes in longstanding African-American communities in places like Martha’s Vineyard and Sag Harbor — have loved, worked and raised families in such places, this comes as something of a revelation.
Black queer love and longing on screen, such as the heartbreaking “Pariah” (2011) and the historically resonant “Brother to Brother” (2004) explore the shame, vulnerability and pain associated with queerness but are rarely able to allow Black LGBTQ characters the agency on display here.
The contemplative, laid-back demeanor of Denise’s novelist character battling writer’s block and the aching vulnerability of Alicia’s desperate efforts to conceive a child rewrite the narrative landscape of Black popular culture in profound ways. Scenes depicting Denise and Alicia’s efforts to conceive a child in the aftermath of a miscarriage are not only sensitively handled but revelatory in their dialogue about monogamy, heteronormative nuclear families and how race, gender and sexuality impact their choices. While the situations may seem familiar to many viewers, they also feel very different when we experience them through the lives of these powerfully adroit Black women.
In this sense, the show’s focus on Black queer love represents a radical act of artistic subversion. Denise and Alicia’s union is a relationship at one point ensconced in the bosom of economic privilege and at other moments, after their separation and divorce, vulnerable to the anxiety of inadequate health insurance and the precarity of gainful employment. Reminiscent of Kathleen Collins’ revolutionary film
“Losing Ground,” “Moments of Love” pays attention to the small, intimate details of this queer Black couple’s love of art, passion for food and longing for a sense of place.
Denise and Alicia revel in their enjoyment of a diasporic relationship. Combining Black American, British, Caribbean and African traditions in their sartorial, food, linguistic and aesthetic touches, they are authentically and transnationally Black in ways that are brilliantly conveyed through the mundane. In a bravura scene, one that I replayed over and over, they silently fold laundry while grooving to the sound of “Everybody, Everybody,” a global anthem sung by Blackbox that captures in miniature the sublime joy of Black love in moments of peace, sheltered against the inevitable tides of an outside world that still sees Black life for what it lacks rather than all of the transcendent genius it embodies.
The critical response to this season illustrates both the road yet traveled and the progress that is continuously being made towards illuminating Black humanity in television, film, and the arts. “Moments of Love” succeeds in showing the beauty, intelligence, pain and love of a Black queer couple on an emotional roller coaster made all the more extraordinary by the fact that we rarely, if ever, stop to consider that Denise’s and Alicia’s might exist at all.