‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“I got a match!”
There are more than a fair share of subversive romantic comedies on television right now. This golden age of television has led to programs like You’re the Worst, Love, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and many more, which all effectively portray realistic, flawed glimpses of modern love. Aziz Ansari is a comedian who’s devoted a good deal of the later stages of his career to dissecting and having fun with modern love. Ansari’s Netflix series, Master of None, feels like the perfect synthesis of many of his ideas on the subject. The series has presented some conventional relationship stories over its run, but it’s also turned out ambitious, stylistic experiments that have helped the show find its voice and push it into a higher art form. This is a show where people can watch Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim bro-ing out and singing ridiculous rhymes about loving food, but it’s also a series that is capable of knocking viewers back with some very real insight and commentary on romance and love in the current age.
One of the most articulate, economical episodes from Master of None’s second season is its fourth entry, “First Date.” Written by Sarah Schneider and directed by Wareheim, the episode tells an incredibly simple story—Dev (Ansari) goes on a bunch of dates courtesy of a Tinder-like app—but it’s that simplicity that allows the episode to get so experimental with how it presents its information to the audience. “First Date” effectively and brilliantly crams a season’s worth of romantic experiences for Dev into not only a meager 25 minutes, but it curates the entire thing into a sole experience that’s emblematic of app dating as a whole. Essentially the entire episode is one long date for Dev, beginning with him getting ready for his date with Christine and ending alone at his apartment as he sends another hopeful message out into the ether by the time the credits roll.
Watching the slick editing and camerawork that makes this episode come together is a lot of fun, but this installment isn’t just trying to look clever. The perilously edited experience is meant to convey the exhaustion of app dating, and Dev’s evening does indeed feel exhausting by the time it’s over. He gets no buffer from these dates. Each new face plays more and more like an attack.
“First Date” certainly takes a page from “Mornings” and “Parents,” two stylized episodes from the show’s first season that helped test the waters for this sort of experiment. Other episodes from this season, “New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving,” almost function as pseudo-sequels to those strong installments as they bring supporting characters and niche concerns into focus. “New York, I Love You” might even technically be a stronger episode than “First Date,” but on a show that is so preoccupied with the dating experience, “First Date” feels like the more appropriate example to focus on. It’s also pulling off much more of a tightrope walk of a concept than “New York, I Love You” is, with the risks it takes greatly paying off in the show’s favor.
“First Date” poignantly begins by showcasing the random nature of dating apps and how people use the tools. It shows it invading people’s spare time, whether they’re trying to do some grocery shopping, killing time in the bathroom, or feeling the minutes drag by at a funeral. It’s only fitting that the episode begins through someone else’s perspective, with each one of them viewing Dev as an outsider (although a potentially sexable one), as the rest of the episode is comfortably set behind his point of view as he’s taken through a corral of first dates.
The episode has a lot of material to play with, whether it’s Dev trading anecdotes, hearing about odd jobs, equating how race plays into dating apps and infers the experience, or just negotiating through good date etiquette versus bad date etiquette. An inspired sequence towards the end of the episode shotguns a bunch of moments together where Dev attempts to go in for a goodnight kiss. This episode is all about highlighting the eclectic nature of app dating, but this scene acts as a solid distillation of what it’s all about. It gets right to the core of whether two people are connecting or not. Accordingly, a number of Dev’s dates end at the Uber ride home, but some still manage to end up going beyond that.
The episode’s having the most fun when it’s highlighting these differences, like whether Dev gets off terribly with his date, if they’re already in a relationship, or whether they’re not even looking to date. In that sense, “First Date” explores the psychology behind why people use apps like Tinder in the first place, extending its focus beyond that of simply the dates themselves. It’s more about human experience, which is Master of None’s bread and butter. To add to this, the episode also explores the idea that people don’t even truly know what inspires their matches in the first place. Maybe this date is genuinely into the other person, maybe it’s an apprehensive swipe, or perhaps the whole thing is just a prank where the other party isn’t interested at all.
Meanwhile, audiences get to watch Dev go through the same jokes, bits, and restaurants on this endless date. He recreates the same experiences and hopes that the new variable will lead to something magical or different happening. It might seem impersonal to break a date down to the math-like equation and science of it all, but that’s definitely how some people navigate online dating. Not every date is supposed to be “The One” or something life-changing. Some people use it simply to become better communicators, meet new people, or just try and get back into the dating game. Highlighting Dev’s somewhat rehearsed nature through each of his dates effectively shows the monotony of this experience. It’s easy to picture Dev going on another dozen dates offscreen that feature more or less the same results of these ones.
The fact that Dev is also heading into these dates without an incredibly strong idea of what he’s looking for (something that seems to constantly plague his character, even more so during the show’s first season) also contributes to the inconsequential outcome of many of his encounters. These might be messy experiences, but that doesn’t mean that all of them will be. In fact, now that Dev’s gone through this process, he’s learned a little more about himself—whether intentional or otherwise—and might actually know what he’s looking for from a date. “First Date” might end with Dev very much still confused and lonely, but he’s at least further along on his path towards happiness and fulfillment.
It’s worth noting that while Dev does walk away from this experience with a positive experience with Priya (Tiya Sircar), it’s not one that leaves a lasting impact on the series. Priya may carry over into the next episode, but things quickly fizzle out, illustrating that even dates that seem successful might just be running on borrowed time. That’s not to say that Master of None is positing that app dating is a broken endeavor, simply that it’s a complicated one, and it wants to capture that full perspective.
There are a lot of ways that this series could have said the things that it was looking to say in this episode, but few would be as creative and effective as the decision that’s taken here. “First Date” not only acts as one of the strongest episodes from Master of None’s second season, but also more proof of it becoming a show that increasingly plays around with form and structure in exciting ways.
Now, I’m going to Whole Foods. Want me to pick you up anything?