The Emmy-winning Master of None returned last month after a four-year hiatus. Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the show’s first two seasons focused on Ansari’s character Dev, a fictionalized version of himself and an agglomeration of various high-taste New York dudes. If you’ve ever hung out below Houston Street or in Williamsburg, you probably recognize the type. The aspiring actor who is unlucky in love, an aesthete who wears Common Project sneakers and drools over in-the-know restaurants. As such, the show was full of sharp dialog and sharper clothes, beautiful interiors and furniture, and a plethora of other winking visual nods. Even with all the Aperol Spritz and Saint Laurent, the show never shied away from the fact that you could wear cool clothes and eat great food, and your life still could feel unfulfilled.
Master of None has been aesthetically inclined since its inception, but the show always had a deep-rooted foundation lurking underneath the surface. It consistently punched with more gravity than viewers expected, giving us episodes like “Thanksgiving” and “New York, I Love You.” This newly launched third season kicks Dev and his bumbling love life to the curb and instead puts its steady, unhurried lens on Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). I’d also venture to say the third main character is the expansive, two-story farmhouse in upstate New York that the couple lives in.
The first floor features a country kitchen, dining nook, and a sprawling living room with a brick fireplace and plenty of cozy corners. If you saunter up the old-looking stairs, you’ll find a cavernous central hallway with a next-level book nook and built-in shelving, the master bedroom with an adjoined bathroom, and a quaint guest room. Well, actually, if you walk up the stairs, you’ll find nothing—because the stairs are fake and the house is a set built on a stage in east London. But the details and hard work that went into crafting an idyllic upstate home from scratch were very real.
“I knew that we were going to do more static shots and a slower style of filming,” said Amy Williams, the show’s long-standing production designer and producer of this season. “I was excited for that. It really is a production designer’s dream.”
This third season is so slow and so quiet and so still, it commands the viewer to lean in like having an intimate conversation with a soft-spoken friend. The stylistic choices reminds me of Columbus, the first feature directed by South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada. That film takes place in Columbus, Indiana, an unassuming mecca of mid-century architecture tucked away in a slow Midwestern town. With Kogondad’s sensitive eye, the buildings provide an extraordinary backdrop for the slow drip of drama. The century-old house in Master of None provides a similar stage.
“What I was most nervous about was staying true to these characters and representing these queer Black women in the right way with the right decor,” explained Williams. “I really wanted to honor that and support the story in that way.” She gives credit to the two leads and Ansari, who directed every episode this season. The group talked endlessly about what kind of art Denise and Alicia would have on their walls, and the books they’d have on their dresser. Waithe, who has pretty immaculate sense of style, even recommended Erykah Badu’s incense, which they burned on set from time to time. All these seemingly small choices, these little atmospheric elements, led to a house that felt authentic—and most importantly, lived-in.
Before Williams even read the scripts, Ansari revealed to her that the season focused on Denise and her marriage. “Aziz told me he was taking them out of the city and putting them in upstate New York,” she said. Aware that they would be filming in London, she took to Zillow and Airbnb to look at homes in New York to get a visual sense of architecture style. She also toured homes in the United Kingdom, asking herself, “If I found a 150-year-old home in upstate New York, would the beams look like this? Would the fireplace look like this?” Eventually, the choice was made to build the home to make the interior just as they wanted it. And if you were curious which town Denise and Alicia ended up in? “We landed on Phoenicia,” said Williams, referencing the beautiful and sleepy little village in the heart of the Catskill Mountains.
Throughout the season, we watch the shifting relationship between our two leads. We learn that the couple moved into this beautiful house after Denise publishes a best-selling novel. They finally decide they are ready to start a family. In many ways, it is the idyllic life that most creative-professional New Yorkers pine for. Yet, we learn that life has no resting spot. Just because you managed to grind it out in an expensive and relentless city for a decade and end up with the dream house on a rural road doesn’t mean effortless bliss is promised.
“As New Yorkers, we relate to that idea [of the upstate life]. That is the fantasy,” said Williams. “The thing about the house is that we always wanted to show that many couples and families have lived there over time. Denise and Alicia were just there for the moment. They made it theirs, and they made it beautiful, but ultimately it doesn’t last.”
Williams mentions that the evolution and shift between the two characters were always in the back of the team's mind. Early on, everything in the house was assigned to either Denise or Alicia. She recalled, "We knew from the beginning who got what when they broke up."
In the third episode, we watch Denise meander around the house that she now occupies by her lonesome. Half of the decor and furniture are gone. The walls are emptier, the expression on her face is sadder. For anyone who has built a home with a partner and watched them pack up and leave, it hits like a punch to the gut. The episode ends on drawn-out shots of the completely empty house: first the kitchen, then the living room. Somehow, the house itself feels resilient, merely waiting to hold the memories and love of its next occupants.
Master of None argues that the more rewarding parts of life—finding a partner to love, building a home, starting a family, having a fulfilling career—requires effort and determination. It shows that life is full of peaks and valleys and that, unfortunately, there are sometimes limits to love. A beautiful home in the country isn't a promise of an idyllic life.
"There were some imperfections and weird choices here and there," said Williams. "We wanted that layer of life so that it wasn't just a showcase of beautiful decor." It's a good rule of thumb for design and a concept that feels in lockstep with the season's theme. Perhaps, there is also a grander lesson at play: sometimes life is imperfect and weird, and other times it's beautiful.