The video above was produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia.
[Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers for “Master of None” Season 3.]
If Peak TV has taught us anything, it’s impossible to have too much of a good thing. That’s why “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” still airs five nights a week in primetime and all of NBC’s Thursday night sitcoms are super-sized. OK, so neither of those things are true, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry from looking into other ways of sating a fanbase’s every desire.
That, of course, is part of the reason why studios continue to be obsessed with creating and recreating shows based on existing intellectual property. If you liked “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” surely you’ll enjoy that same show, but different.
But something we haven’t examined as much — see also: griped about — are continuations of existing series that, after varying degrees of hiatus, are resurrected with seasons that don’t live up to the high, established standards.
Last weekend saw the release of two such examples with the fourth season of HBO’s “In Treatment” and the third season of Netflix’s “Master of None.” While both shows were polished to a high-gloss sheen that only prestige television can achieve, neither managed to capture the spark of brilliance that lay at the center of both, once upon a time.
“In Treatment,” at least, had a reason to feel a bit rusty coming out of the gate. It had been over a decade since the last new season and the show is now under new management with Jennifer Schuur and Joshua Allen serving as co-showrunners and Uzo Aduba taking over the therapist’s chair for Gabriel Byrne.
Neither of those upheavals are what make the series a stark departure from previous seasons. No, the issue facing “In Treatment” is one that faces so much modern TV, in that more and more shows are unwilling to let audiences sit with the tension of the unknown.
In its first three seasons, totaling 106 episodes, viewers learned about Dr. Paul Weston’s (Byrne) life piecemeal, doling out small insights through sessions with patients, but primarily through his own meetings with colleague and clinical supervisor Dr. Gina Toll (Dianne Wiest).
In the latest season, viewers are plunged into the personal issues of Dr. Brooke Taylor (Aduba) almost immediately and often in direct conversation with the patients she’s advising. While Taylor has a confidante of sorts she communicates with, it’s with someone in a personal, not professional, capacity. That alteration tips the series too far toward being a show primarily about the therapist and not enough about the patients.
Suzanne Tenner / HBO
But it goes farther than that. In the past, Weston would operate out of a home office with a private entrance, a la Dr. Jason Seaver in “Growing Pains” — the point being, a discreet point of entry for both patient and doctor, appropriate for personal medical matters.
Taylor operates out of her home, a glass-walled manse overlooking Los Angeles, where patients park in her driveway and enter right through her front door. There’s no office they go to, it’s just right there in Taylor’s living room; the same place she unwinds or melts down or does whatever it is she does in her private time in her own home — there’s no separation. Ostensibly, this is a decision driven by pandemic restrictions. But the result is that the audience is always living and breathing whatever it is Taylor is living and breathing. “In Treatment” was originally centered on Weston, but he wasn’t the entirety of the experience. Now, we see too much. We know too much. And anyone in therapy knows that can be unhealthy territory.
Meanwhile, the issue with “Master of None” Season 3 is how it took the micro of what made its first two seasons great, made them macro, and somehow lost all the detailing that set the show apart.
To explain: The first two seasons of “Master of None” were never so good as when they dug deep into the lives of people outside of Dev (Aziz Ansari). The series provided us with windows into worlds we’d never before seen or experienced or had the opportunity to, for whatever reason. A particular stand-out was an episode in the second season, “Thanksgiving,” in which we see Dev with best friend Denise (Lena Waithe) through a series of November holidays over the years that show her coming out as lesbian to her family and, in turn, her family coming to terms with their perception of their daughter and sister. It was insightful and emotional and tapped into something true. It was relatable because the specificity of detail was so finely wrought that it transformed into something universal. In other words, it turned into love.
If you’re at all familiar with the third season of “Master of None” you’ll understand the irony of the above.
Courtesy of Netflix
Officially titled “Master of None: Moments in Love,” the show’s third season focuses exclusively on Denise and her relationship with a woman named Alicia, beginning with a series of quick revelations set in jelly. It turns out the Denise and Alicia are married, Denise had a New York Times best-selling book, Dev and his girlfriend come to dinner and cosplay “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Alicia frets about their relationship, she tells Denise it’s time for a baby, Denise grudgingly agrees, they procure a donor sample from a friend, they have a successful self-insemination, Alicia is pregnant, Alicia is not pregnant anymore, Alicia and Denise mourn. These are all things that happen during the first episode of the season, which lasts 56 minutes. Scenes are long and lingering, with Ansari’s direction openly mirroring Ingmar Bergman’s work in “Scenes From a Marriage” but locked into a single mid-range set-up, leaving everything to play out before you, as though the couple were operating behind an observational window.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. An observational window implies that the audience has control over what they are shown. “Master of None” is instead a peep show. We stick a quarter in, we see the emotional set-up, but the shutters slam shut before any emotional insight is presented.
Allow me, if I may, to spoil the bigger picture of “Moments in Love” for you. Episode 2 features distance and infidelity; Episode 3, divorce; Episode 4, an infertility standalone; and Episode 5, a reconciliation of sorts. What you see in these episodes is the fallout of decisions, but what you rarely see is the aftermath. But the most interesting part of life isn’t what happens, it’s how it happens.
If someone cheats, OK. If a couple breaks up over it, OK. But how do they get to that point? How do they work it out or not work it out? How do they get where someone calls it quits? What bombs are hurled? At what point is all hope lost? If someone hits rock bottom, OK. If they dig their way out, great. But how do they do that? What is the process of rebuilding their life like? How do they find the strength to gut it out?
Courtesy of Netflix
“Master of None” isn’t interested in any of those questions, and that’s just fine. But without engaging in them, there is an emotional through line that is lost. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the audience has so little time to invest in Denise and Alicia before they start falling apart. How can you care about the stakes of a couple breaking up if you don’t have any time to invest in them as a unit in the first place?
The season feels like a painstakingly crafted facade. It looks as good as anything else you’ll find on TV. The production design is out of this world, but beneath, there isn’t much of anything behind that pretty picture. The fourth episode, which features a character’s endeavor into the world of IVF, wants to be important TV, but instead feels like a filmed brochure your OB/GYN thrusts at you at then end of your pap smear. We hear about how expensive treatments are, but our characters don’t seem to struggle with money. They say they can’t afford to do artificial insemination in a hospital, but fund an (exponentially more expensive) cycle of IVF. They say they don’t have enough money to have a child and open a business, and then they do both. We don’t know how. We’re never shown it. There were obstacles and then there weren’t.
This is, perhaps, the most offensive misstep in “Master of None.” It’s one thing to depict the failure of a relationship in a languid, low-stakes fashion, but to do so with IVF feels monstrous. It’s not a 45-minute adventure that ends in happiness. It’s a boring, tedious ordeal that rarely ends well. It’s shots and creams and trans-vaginal ultrasounds two times a week. It’s diagnostic tests and admissions that often times doctors don’t know why you can’t get pregnant. It’s ovarian manipulation and hormones and egg harvesting and uterus scraping and exploratory surgery and embryo malfunction and genetic testing and fruitless implantation. IVF is a choose-your-own-adventure novel that often doesn’t have a single positive ending in the whole damn book. And if you don’t want to engage in that fully, then don’t try to take on that story.
“Master of None” thrived on the details; on creating windows to worlds we were unfamiliar with and allowing us to luxuriate in them, if only for an episode. It was warm. Season 3 was something else entirely.
For more on what happens when the new stuff just isn’t as good as the old stuff, tune in to this week’s episode of IndieWire’s TV podcast “Millions of Screens” with Creative Producer Leo Garcia, Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers, and TV Awards Editor Libby Hill. Then, stick around as Ben refutes our “Friends”-related heresy from last week and the final edition of Leo’s Murder Durder Suspect Power Rankings for “Mare of Easttown.”
“Millions of Screens” is available on Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.