“Master of None” Roundtable: Sparks of Queer Black Brilliance in an Unsatisfying Story

Dani Janae, Natalie, and Shelli Nicole linked up to chat about Netflix’s Master of None: Moments of Love. The latest season stars Lena Waithe and Naomi Ackie, and is the first to feature a story that focuses entirely on the relationship of a Black Lesbian couple. Let’s get into it!

Image shows a burgundy box that has the words "moments in love" in the center with an image behind it that shows two people in a kitchen

Shelli Nicole: I kinda just wanna jump into it and ask — How did you feel about the show? When Episode five was done and you were left sitting on your couch or laying in bed as the credits rolled, how did you feel about what you just watched?

Dani Janae: I watched all five episodes in one sitting. At the end of it, I felt… satisfied but also kind of pissed. What unfolds in the episodes is very simple in that we are all flawed and I think the story hit a nerve due to some personal things going on in my life. I wanted more of some things and less of others. I was happy I watched but also felt a way about what I had seen.

Shelli Nicole: I too watched it all in one sitting. I felt like I had to, I wanted to take it all in at once for some reason. Maybe because I knew there would be some trauma at some point just due to Lena’s history as a storyteller or producer, so I wanted to just get to it and get it over with.

Natalie: I finished it all in one sitting as well. I had mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I go into every Lena Waithe project wanting to love it — this has been true for The Chi, Boomerang, and Twenties — then I end up loving some things about it, but not really connecting with the rest of it. Like, I thought episode four was one of the best things Lena’s probably ever written, maybe even better than “Thanksgiving,” but then episode five came along and I was just like 🤷🏾.

Shelli Nicole: Damn that’s high praise because so far, “Thanksgiving” is still at the top of my list of anything she’s ever created. Why did episode four make you feel like that though? For me, it was the one that hurt the most, as it probably should have given the content.

Natalie: Oh, it absolutely did hurt. It felt like the writing and the performances just aligned beautifully in that episode. I thought that the story of navigating the fertility process is something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, especially when it comes to queer people and particularly single queer people.

Dani Janae: Yeah, I’ve never seen a queer woman trying to conceive a child on her own on a show before. Alicia’s story kept me coming back even when it hurt, I wanted resolution for her.

Natalie: Episode 4 really worked because it had an arc, in the same way that “Thanksgiving” did. It was really building towards something in a way the other episodes didn’t.

Shelli Nicole: That’s true, It’s something in the next few years that I might be looking into and I know it’s going to wildly difficult. So seeing that on-screen was an interesting call but I still feel like it was — so much pain? Like, at a certain point I was just like “Damn, I get it.” I understand the difficulty of this process, but I wanted a point in the story where she could have a break.

I am not negating the nuance of that storyline nor the importance of it needing to be told but, I was waiting so long for a break for her that the one we finally got didn’t feel like enough to make up for all the pain I just saw. It was layers and layers of just — pain. Giving up a dream, worrying about finances, physical trauma, being away from her mother, losing eggs, and I was just like WHEW.

Natalie: I would’ve definitely preferred that she wasn’t so isolated the entire time… it was hard to watch her deal with this all alone and with the nurse being her only real source of comfort. I’m genuinely curious to know if that was the original vision for the story or if COVID dictated that story choice?

Shelli Nicole: I don’t know. I feel like I wanted something sweeter. I understand that we are to use Film & TV to tell Black Queer stories — things that happen to us, things that affect us, things that go on in our communities, and more — in order to bring awareness to these things.  But perhaps it’s because I (we) actually live it that sometimes, just fucking sometimes, I wanna escape into a world where that stuff isn’t.

Dani Janae: Totally get that, it was very painful to watch. I thought they used the relationship with the nurse to assuage some of that pain but it was still very hard. I agree with Shelli in wanting something sweeter. All around I wanted something sweeter. We so rarely see two BLACK women loving each other I was hoping it would be triumphant. I get that love and relationships are complicated but I feel like you can portray that in more interesting ways.

Image shows photo of a Black woman at a desk with her hands clasped together.

Shelli Nicole: Did y’all have a favorite moment?

Dani Janae: I really liked the “bad bitch” moment Alicia had with her doctor. Like that resolve and strength to just do it alone and continue after the first attempt was so affirming for me. I don’t want kids but I feel like that attitude of “I’m a bad bitch and I will succeed” is so translatable to various life endeavors.

Shelli Nicole: Mine was the sweet scene in the laundry room when they were folding clothes. Doing the partner shit and connecting with each other through their love of music. Everything about it was beautiful. The way they were openly silly with one another — which is something I think you only really do with a great friend or someone you love like, romantically. There wasn’t any murky space between them and they were just living, loving, and laughing.

Natalie: I was going to say the same thing, Dani. That and the moment where Alicia found out her eggs were viable felt relatable. That viability moment felt like one of the few moments of pure joy in this season.

Dani Janae: I think as a start to finish project, I didn’t mind watching it. Like I wouldn’t say I regret those hours. I will say I thought it could have been executed better. I wanted more powerful love and happiness for all but the way it ended…Really derailed it for me. I don’t want to be too hard on Waithe, there were some great scenes that I enjoyed. Would I recommend it to a friend? Not really. But I would talk about it with a friend if they already watched it — Maybe that’s the end goal to get people talking.

Shelli Nicole: I am proud that there is a piece of work in the world that has hours worth of focus on two Black lesbians that also present in different ways. I am happy that some young dyke 10 years from now will use scenes from this to inspire them in their own work, and that there is even something around like this for them to be inspired by. I wish there was more romance, less pain, and copious spoonfuls of gentleness — but I am a secret hopeless romantic, an eternal optimist, and have always moved thru the world wanting more sweetness so… this is very on-brand for me to feel this way — I’m not watching it again though.

Natalie: Moments in Love feels like a missed opportunity… Episode four was incredible and showed the potential for what this could have been. I see the sparks of brilliance there but they never connect for me in a way that felt satisfying — and I say that as a committed member of Team Love is a Lie.

Shelli Nicole: Also — so much of this felt like a love letter to cheating.

Dani Janae: !! I think portraying a couple that disagrees on having kids or not would be a dope examination of conflict in relationships, but then the cheating storyline came in and I was like oh no.

Shelli Nicole: From the MINUTE her friend showed up I was like “I know EGGZAKLEE where this is about to go.”

Image shows a photo of two people in a bathtub. You can only see their knees and wallpaper with candles lining the bath.

Natalie: I definitely wished they’d done more to deal with the emotional fallout from the miscarriage but then the friend showed up and like Shelli, I was like, “oh, I see where this is going.”

Can I ask did you guys connect with Denise and Alicia as a couple from the beginning?

Shelli Nicole: Not in any way, shape, or form.

Dani Janae: I wanted to as a Black woman that loves other Black women. I thought they were a cute couple but I didn’t really connect with either of them in that way.

Shelli Nicole: They felt like two separate people, living separate lives but just in the same space. Like friends who mistook their deep friendship connection as a sign to create a romantic one.

Dani Janae: I feel like that feeling was heightened by the lack of physical intimacy between them.

Natalie: That was the big stumbling block for me, right from the start. Despite the cute interactions between them, there wasn’t enough to make me really care about the fate of the relationship. The fact that they were in this house that, I guess, they called cozy but just felt suffocating to me… I just wanted to get out of that space.

Shelli Nicole: I love that you bought up the house because it def felt like it was this major glue that was holding the relationship together. Like they thought if they filled it with enough things that they both loved, then they could be comfortable enough to live there while they just moved through the relationship.

Dani Janae: I feel like I came to this wanting to see some blooming love but what it felt like was what Shelli said, two friends who mistook the relationship for more. The most in touch they felt in the five episodes was when they were both cheating on their respective wives.

Shelli Nicole: Absolutely Dani!!!!

Natalie: That’s absolutely right. Also, I would’ve taken that stained glass out of that damn window before I sold it.

Shelli Nicole: Lol I thought they were going to low-key! When they were in that tub in the final episode, It was the most connected and the most honest they had ever been. It was also the most, in-love moment during the show.

How did y’all feel about Aziz’s quick presence in the show?

Dani Janae: It felt unnecessary. Like that could have been another cute lesbian couple that appeared in that scene. I get it’s his show technically but I was like, meh I could go without seeing him.

Natalie: I mean, there’s a conversation to be had about Aziz and his history and whether he should have appeared in front of the camera…. but I think they needed something to ground Denise. Dev comes in and they drop back into this easy rapport and it just highlights how strained things really are between Denise and Alicia. I would’ve rather seen Denise’s mom come through or maybe her aunt — but I appreciated that juxtaposition.

Shelli Nicole: It just felt out of place for me. Like, they needed to ground her but I could have done without it being through him.

Natalie: Had either of you watched the first two seasons?

Dani Janae: I did watch the first season I believe.

Shelli Nicole: I totally did. I liked them and was a fan. It was my first intro to Lena actually. I was like “A Black Lesbian? On Netflix? Show me and give it to me now — NOW!”

Natalie: I think the other thing that’s interesting about Dev’s appearance is in the second season he seems like he’s on the cusp of breaking through but things falls apart. Obviously, by Moments in Love, he’s at a low point and it kind of foreshadows where Denise is going.

Shelli Nicole: This just wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted Black Lesbian romance. I wanted sweetness and kisses. Do you know what I wanted? A full five episodes of that scene in episode five when they were dancing to Back II Life. I understand relationships are hard and that difficulties will arise, moreso with us given our identities. But I also deserve moments in film & television where there is a couple who looks like me that isn’t bombarded with trauma, breakups, or sadness. I wanna see that and I don’t think I’m a fool for asking for it.

Natalie: They called it Moments in Love so that wasn’t an unrealistic expectation.

Dani Janae: I feel like they could have gotten away with it if the final action wasn’t both of them reveling in being cheaters. Like I would have loved to just see Alicia move on as a mother, find a partner, and be happy.

Image shows 2 Black women on a farm laughing together.

Shelli Nicole: AND BE HAPPY. And have Denise beautifully partnered, grounded in her life living as a creative on her own terms (or non-creative), and them in each others’ lives as the true friends they seemed to actually be.

Natalie: I’m curious about what you guys thought about the first instances of cheating. Denise hooks up with her friend and then gets into the accident and Alicia, who’s supposed to be in Baltimore, rushes back but we find out really she was out cheating. Did that strike either of you as odd?

Dani Janae: Very odd!

Shelli Nicole: lol yes! They were like, let’s have both of them be somewhat terrible people.

Dani Janae: We as viewers also didn’t get to see Alicia cheat so it was like… what??

Natalie: Which is fine… birds of a feather and all that… but like she was really upset about it and I just didn’t get it.

Dani Janae: I wanna say I think there are far bigger betrayals in a relationship than cheating, but it just felt so forced and unreal.

Natalie: One of the things that struck me about this (and Twenties as well) was how the story parallels Lena’s own life. Obviously, this was written before her marriage ended so I won’t dig into the personal, but I was curious about how you feel about the pressure that Denise felt as a queer creative… because, at least, that part felt true to Lena’s life.

Do you feel that pressure as a queer creative, especially as a queer creative of color? Did that portrayal resonate for you? It’s been something that’s been rattling around in my head since I watched the show.

Dani Janae: That’s a really interesting question. As a poet, I think there is a pressure to create art that is about your deepest darkest pains and secrets. Like everyone wants a piece of you on that level, for everything to be raw and guttural. So I definitely feel that pressure for sure. I think Denise’s character really grappled with that even being a fiction writer. Publishers and readers kinda want you to bleed on the page. And when you have a first big success as she did, the pressure is even higher for a second release.

Shelli Nicole: I think I felt like that at the very start of my creative career, I had success very quickly and was writing at publications that I’d only dreamed of. So many places only wanted me to only write from a traumatic view – which I did for a while because I thought it was the only way to have success as a Black Queer writer. But I had to stop writing things I didn’t want to out of fear that the opportunities would stop. It was hard but when I did, I found better success than I ever could have — and I’m not fucking traumatizing myself and others for some coin and a few followers.

Natalie: Denise carries the weight of trying to live up to the first thing she wrote… and that becomes so consuming, it blocks her from writing. I think Lena does as well. Thanksgiving is one of her first big solo swings and she knocks it out of the park, winning that historic Emmy. Now everyone’s kind of expecting that from her.

Shelli Nicole: I don’t think I am expecting Lena to live up to that — what I am expecting her to do is have some reasoning behind her work and to keep in mind the very folks she says she is creating it for. To find her own happy blend of writing things for herself and for the folks who will be watching it.

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  1. It took a while for me to watch this, as Lena’s previous work has been hit or miss(mostly miss) for me. I talked about it from friends who had watched but it was nice to hear your thoughts, as the further fleshed out my own expectations. Like y’all, Thanksgiving was one of my first introductions to Lena and I thought it was great. Her other stuff, not so much. I feel like with their work, there’s usually more shock or aesthetic, than substance.

    Anyway, I found this review to be quite spot on. What yall said about then mistaking deep friendship for romance rings true and I especially liked the bit about this being ‘An ode to Cheating’ (made me laugh, lol) because that’s exactly what I felt as well.

    It’s always nice to see black lesbians written by a black lesbian on screen, as we get so little do our stories told, but this wasn’t it for me. I’m glad she got the opportunity though, and hopefully this opens more doors for other black queer creatives.

  2. I have to agree with Dani, I would not rec this season to a friend, but if they saw it will talk about it.

  3. Thank you for this great roundtable. As someone who is no longer a fan of Lena for many reasons, I’m not planning to watch it. Reading this has cemented to me that her work often lacks a grander narrative vision. I really wanted to like Twenties but it’s such an uneven show and I don’t think she’s as thoughtful a writer as you’d expect for someone at her level. That said, I understand this installment is groundbreaking because it may be the only major series starring Black lesbians (not just one or two as part of a larger cast). So, I don’t know! Anyway, thanks to you all for your reactions and observations.

  4. Thanks for that roundtable. I was so ready to rant about it on Twitter but the comment section feels more the place to do that, so let’s go.

    I think that season will definitely spark so much discussion, that in a sense we can’t deny it’s qualitative work.

    I agree with everything that was said but I loved it nonetheless. I thought it was brilliant because it tackles so many things that we tend to just dismiss as « bad » without actually thinking about what’s behind all that.

    I don’t believe Alicia cheated in the first place. I did not connect with their relationship because ir was lacking intimacy but at the same time we all know couples moving to that place in their relationship where it feels like it’s just for show and they don’t have any desire for one another anymore. This does not necessarily amount to them not loving each other anymore.

    And they loved each other, we discover that through the final episode as they cheat on their respective wives. and it makes sense: they did not separate because of cheating, they separate because Alicia had to come into herself and had to find herself on her own. Naomi Ackie’s interpretation in Alicia, how she evolves from being the perfect loving wife to that badass single queer woman was just epic to me.

    I also love the fact that Denise was successful at the beginning then kinda living her worst nightmare by the end because it speaks volumes in terms of how we measure happiness in someone’s life. Yes, she’s back into that cubicle but she’s married with kids. And she seems happy about that, even if she cheats – some people need to learn about ethical non-monogamy for real. So that’s something really interesting in how life unfolded for her.

    I could rant about it all day but this was such an amazing piece of work. At first I did not understand what I was looking at, and by the end I was so moved, so struck by the realness of it all. I’m giving it 💯 pure love.

  5. I loved this round table so much.
    I also really liked S3.

    It’s great to have both, the series and the deeper in-group conversations that challenges the story telling for what it left out, or got wrong, or simply was unable to achieve.

    For me, the biggest shortcoming was the lack of chemistry in the leads, but I let it slide and took in all the other good things it had to offer.
    Reading these other criticisms, they’re all valid.

    I guess the world just gonna have to keep making art and trying again and again to get it right.

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