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'Master Of None' Shifts Gears For Its 3rd Season


"Master Of None" returns on Sunday. It's an Emmy-winning series by Netflix. The third season centers on a character played by Lena Waithe, who's also the writer and producer. Our TV critic Eric Deggans says this is a change in focus with an off-screen backstory.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As "Master Of None's" third season begins, Lena Waite's character, Denise, is on a serious roll. Her first book has become a New York Times bestseller, allowing her to buy a cozy home in a bucolic area outside of New York City. And she's married to Alicia, a smart, playful partner with a penchant for odd pillow talk at bedtime.


NAOMI ACKIE: (As Alicia) To save my life, would you lick someone's armpit every day for the rest of your life? (Laughter).

LENA WAITHE: (As Denise) How old are you in this scenario?

ACKIE: (As Alicia) Like, it starts from now - like, 34 for the rest of our lives.

DEGGANS: Still, there are signs of trouble. Denise, caught up in her new fame, often ignores Alicia. When Alicia reminds Denise that she promised months ago that they would start talking now about having a baby, Denise has excuses.


WAITHE: (As Denise) Like, I wasn't a New York Times bestselling author. I didn't think I'd be working on a second book right now.

ACKIE: (As Alicia) I don't want you to say that. I know what you're going to say.

WAITHE: (As Denise) Babe, how...

ACKIE: (As Alicia) I just know. You're going to...

WAITHE: (As Denise) OK.

ACKIE: (As Alicia) ...Say let's wait...

WAITHE: (As Denise) What you think I'm going to say?

ACKIE: (As Alicia) ...Let's wait another year.

WAITHE: (As Denise) See what I'm saying? That's not what I was going to say, babe.

ACKIE: (As Alicia) What were you going to say?

WAITHE: (As Denise) I was going to say let's wait until the dust settles.

ACKIE: (As Alicia) (Laughter).

DEGGANS: What follows is a pensive, deliberate exploration of how their relationship is buffeted by their decision to have a baby. Along the way, the show talks about failure, self-obsession and the masks we often wear in relationships. But this compelling, creative story comes with an asterisk because this new season and the focus on Denise's character comes three years after co-creator Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman who said he repeatedly pressured her into sexual acts on their only date. When the allegations were made public in an online article, Ansari issued a statement saying he was, quote, "surprised and concerned." And in his 2019 stand-up special for Netflix, "Aziz Ansari: Right Now," he went a little further.


AZIZ ANSARI: And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward. And it moved things forward for me, made me think about a lot. I hope I've become a better person.

DEGGANS: Most of "Master Of None's" first two seasons focused on Ansari's character, hapless actor/TV host Dev Shah, searching for great food and romance in New York and Italy. Changing an entire season's focus to Denise when Ansari hasn't fully addressed the implications of his scandal publicly feels like a bit of a dodge. And when Dev shows up in this new season, bringing a girlfriend to Denise and Alicia's house only to get in a brutal verbal fight with her, the ghost of Ansari's past looms again. Talking with Denise, Dev admits he's stuck in a dead-end job, missing the days when his career was on track.


ANSARI: (As Dev) I used to have it so good, running around New York, doing whatever we wanted, having fun every day. I never realized how good I had it.

DEGGANS: Sounds like something Ansari himself could say. Written by Ansari and Waithe and directed by Ansari, "Master Of None's" third season is loaded with wonderful moments. It's tough to describe much without spoiling important plot turns, but British actor Naomi Ackie is particularly wonderful as Alicia, bringing a grounded determination to her struggles with fertility while building the life she wants for herself. I only wish this season could stand on its own, apart from the residual ambivalence over a co-creator who has never fully explained himself.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.