What would The Fresh Prince be without Will Smith? Peep Show without Mitchell and Webb? Seinfeld without Jerry? As Aziz Ansari steps out of the spotlight, we are forced to ask the same question about Master of None. In creating Dev Shah, the former protagonist, Ansari drew inspiration from his own life. A struggling thirty-something actor looking for love and adventure in New York City, Dev was an obvious alter-ego in the way that a great many sitcom leads are. But now, with Master of None: Moments in Love, he passes the torch to Lena Waithe.
In the first two seasons, Waithe played Dev’s loyal sidekick Denise – a butch Black lesbian who brought joy to the screens of Sapphics around the world. And it wasn’t only the community that recognized her. Waithe won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for her work on the Thanksgiving episode, loosely based on her own coming out story. It feels absurd that an actor so accomplished as Waithe has never before been cast as the lead. If anybody is ready to shoulder that mantle, it’s her. Unfortunately, Moments in Love suffers by comparison.
From the opening scene, there’s a completely different vibe to seasons one and two. The 4:3 ratio, the silences where before there was a lively soundtrack, the sudden shift in main character – it’s all unsettling. Dev appears 15 minutes into the first episode, a guest in Denise’s home as much as the show. The awkwardness of Dev having moved back in with his parents while Denise is finds fame and fortune feels a tad meta. Since season two ended in 2017, Lena Waithe has become a household name, writing and producing smash hit Queen & Slim (among many other homerun projects). Meanwhile, Anzari’s career lost momentum following an accusation of sexual misconduct at the height of the #MeToo movement.
While Ansari never publicly apologized to the woman in question, he did decide to take time out of the limelight and reflect. In the four year gap between seasons, a lot has changed. Moments in Love is all about women. The relationship between Denise and Alicia, their personal and professional lives, this is the beating heart of the story. The most noteworthy male character is Lightskin Darius, the couple’s sperm donor, who makes his ‘contribution’ and leaves.
And it feels significant that – instead of showing a Kevin Spacey-level entitlement to starring roles – Ansari chose to tell a thoughtful story of Black lesbian love. Every episode of Moments in Love was co-written with Waithe, who stars as Denise. Where Moments in Love excels is its depiction of Black lesbians starting a family. From the careful choosing of a donor to discussion of how to introduce a child to the racism she or he will one day experience, there are truths many viewers will recognize.
While Master of None avoids direct discussion of politics, Alicia’s IVF journey brings to light a burning injustice. While her insurance company covers straight people accessing IVF, it has no policy for women who are lesbian or single. And so, like countless others, Alicia puts her dreams on hold to fund her pregnancy.
Moments in Love would work well as a standalone story. Denise and Alicia’s attempt to have a baby, the way their marriage crumbles in the aftermath of grief, their path to a new kind of togetherness – this is a complete and deeply moving arc.
But it suffers from the expectations set by Master of None. This isn’t a comedy. Not even close. In fact, the overwhelming feeling throughout is sadness. Moments in Love shows friends growing apart; romances failing; the pressures of success; the sorrow of failure. And perhaps that’s the point Master of None is trying to make with this change of direction – that life can lose its sparkle as youth fades. But most of the time Moments in Love feels needlessly defeatist. The grainy quality of film and grey lighting, while aesthetically beautiful, contribute to this suffocating air of sadness.
There’s also the issue of pace. While Master of None season one and two had a full 10 episodes, Moments in Love has five. The longest, episode one, runs to 56 minutes. The shortest, a meagre 21. The action can at times feel rushed, other scenes – like the car rides – yawn on and on. This inconsistency makes the series hard to get into. But persevere. Moments in Love is a beautiful depiction of Black lesbian love. It’s well worth a watch. Though if you’re looking for a show that’s fun or light-hearted, this isn’t it.
Master of None: Moments in Love is now streaming on Netflix.
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