When historians look back at the beginning of the 21st century, they may see a society with a serious culinary obsession. Foodie culture has gradually become a constant presence in pop culture, spreading from Anthony Bourdain’s scorching tell-all Kitchen Confidential to film (Ratatouille, Chef, The Trip) and reality TV (Top Chef, Chopped, Cupcake Wars). The apex of the trend, however, may be Netflix’s Master of None, a show about Dev (Aziz Ansari), a millennial New York actor who builds his entire life around food without realizing how it can’t replace what really matters.
Interestingly, little coverage of the show so far reflects its ambivalent take on foodie-ism. Master of None has inspired a glut of restaurant guides so that foodies can follow in Dev’s footsteps: Thrillist featured a detailed list of the restaurants and bars from Season 2, and Vulture offered a guide to the restaurants from Dev’s season-opening trip to Italy. The food blog Eater published recaps of every episode, complete with a “Food Breakdown” section. This intensification reflects a shift in the show’s emphasis. In the first season, Dev’s foodism was just a lovable quirk. Sure, he spends 45 minutes researching the best taco truck in New York before leaving the house—and then faces a minor existential crisis when he arrives to find out it has run out of tacos—but food is still ancillary to the plot. Not so in Season 2, where nearly every episode centers around a meal, from a open-air BBQ festival in Brooklyn to a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan to a private dining room in the best restaurant in Italy.
Most critics see the show as a celebration of Dev’s extraordinary appetite, but the truth is more complicated. From Master of None’s very first episode, Dev has treated food as shelter from life’s complexity and a balm for painful social interactions. After a broken condom forces him and Rachel (Noël Wells) to visit a pharmacy in search of Plan B, Dev breaks the tension by changing the subject to his favorite apple juice. “You’ve never had Martinelli’s apple juice?” he says in his incredulous, high-pitched tone and buys her one for the awkward cab ride home. At the end of the season, Rachel dumps Dev and announces she is moving to Japan. We watch him pack, assuming that he is following her to profess his love—but he instead hops a flight to Italy to learn how to make pasta. After suffering through a painful breakup with a woman he almost married, Dev dedicates himself to a deeper relationship with his favorite food.
I’m not here to criticize Dev’s passion (or Ansari’s, who is an emphatic foodie in real life), since Master of None already does so. In Season 2, when Dev ramps up his fixation with food, sidelining his acting career to become a food-show personality, you can feel the show struggling with its obsession. When co-creator Alan Yang was asked on Slate’s Represent podcast if he is as big a foodie as Ansari, he responded, “I’m arguably worse. No, we’re both terrible. You know, it’s … it’s … crippling.” These aren’t the words of a person who is comfortable with his hobby, and the show reflects this struggle. Dev may not be self-aware enough to examine where his passion for food comes from and what it may be masking, but the other people in his life do, particularly his elders. When Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale) learns about how much Dev loves Italian food, he asks him why he hasn’t taken the time to explore his own culinary heritage. Dev doesn’t have much of an answer.
Then there is the “Religion” episode, in which Dev convinces his younger cousin to break with their parents’ Islamic tradition and eat pork with him. Dev doesn’t understand why he should pretend he is religious just for his parents’ sake—especially when tempted by a delicious Cubano from Slick Willie’s in Greenpoint—but by episode’s end, he has decided to respect his parent’s faith by eschewing pork in their presence. He begins to realize that there is a richer, more substantive way to interact with food than simply reading Yelp reviews and taking Instagram photos.
Even more telling are the dramatic turns of the new season’s final two episodes. First, Chef Jeff is revealed to be a serial sexual harasser, and Dev—who has created a show with him called BFFs (Best Food Friends)—is tainted by their association. To be honest, the subplot feels shoehorned in, as if Ansari wanted to obliquely comment on the Bill Cosby situation, but it also casts Jeff’s hedonistic pursuit of the perfect meal in a more sinister light. If Jeff’s indulgence of his own appetite also extends to women in the workplace, maybe his passion for food doesn’t come from the most healthy of places.
As Chef Jeff faces the consequences of failing to control his impulses, Dev’s hunger, at least for food, seems to diminish. As Dev and Francesca have a series of painful discussions about their burgeoning relationship—Dev wants her to leave her fiancé and move to New York permanently—food finally takes a back seat. They share a meal of pasta (of course) in his apartment, but the food is incidental to the scene; there’s no tantalizing closeup to distract from their conversation. The scene’s visual language suggests that Dev, who once replaced a relationship with food, is now trying to replace food with a relationship.
The irony of the swap is that Francesca isn’t even a particularly well-drawn character. She’s a fantasy, the human equivalent of a mouth-watering photo on a restaurant menu. Still, Dev never makes this connection, and there is no evidence that he has really learned anything by the end of the season. Ansari, however, clearly has. When asked if he would be returning for a Season 3, he guessed that he would need to do some growing up first. “I don’t have anything else to say about being a young guy being single in New York eating food around town all the time.” That sentiment might make Master of None’s foodie fans cry into their Kobe beef, but it’s also what makes the show so much richer than it is given credit for. It would be so easy for Ansari and Yang to lean into their foodie-ism and turn Master of None into something a lot closer to BFFs, in which Dev goes to a different country each season, eats a lot of great food, and falls in love with a local. You get a sense that they would enjoy that, and so would many of their fans. Instead, they have found a way to both indulge that instinct and question it, and that’s a rare artistic achievement.