How ‘Master of None’ got its groundbreaking portrait of in vitro fertilization right
In the third season of Netflix’s comedy “Master of None,” Alicia (played by Naomi Ackie), dejected, struggles to stay awake after weeks of intensive fertility treatment. Her head gently rolling back, she waits for her laundry to finish during a brief respite from the grueling physical, emotional and financial process of becoming pregnant.
The soundtrack to the scene? A Don Omar song from “Fast Five.”
It’s one of co-creator, co-writer and director Aziz Ansari’s favorite parts of the season because, like the series as a whole, it’s an honest look at the realities, and absurdities, of modern life.
“Topics that are in that zone — everyone’s dealing with it, but no one’s talking about it — are what I tend to gravitate toward,” Ansari wrote in an email to The Times.
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Premiering Sunday, the new season — subtitled “Moments in Love,” the messy, complicated, hard-truths kind — swaps stylish New York City dinners with shabby laundromats and far-flung Italian getaways for fertility clinic visits, including a groundbreaking episode that portrays, with seriousness and care, the rarely televised struggle of infertility. In it, Alicia, the ex-wife of series stalwart Denise (Lena Waithe), embarks on a journey to conceive through in vitro fertilization. It’s an enormous undertaking, made more difficult by the fact she’s doing it alone.
As Ackie put it, “Life has a way of pushing the reality of your situation right in front of your face, so you can’t ignore it.”
One literal example: The camera landing squarely on Alicia’s face as her fertility doctor bluntly details the extra costs she’ll have to shoulder as a single lesbian — an identity for which American insurance companies do not cover in vitro fertilization: “They have a code for being attacked by an orca, and they have a code for being sucked into a jet engine, but not for ‘gay and desires pregnancy,’” the doctor says coolly.
“Millions in our community want to be parents too and we shouldn’t have to feel anxious or othered every time we go to a doctors appointment,” Waithe, who co-wrote the season and stars opposite Ackie, wrote in an email.
It’s the most overtly political moment in an episode otherwise marked by subtlety: lingering shots of Alicia in the clinic waiting room, a minute-long scene of Alicia putting away boxes of medication. They were choices Ansari, working with editor Jennifer Lilly, intentionally made as director. “He wanted it to feel like real life. And that’s what real life looks like,” Waithe said.
The IVF process is a marathon demanding discipline and patience, all for an end result with a less than 50% chance of success. It was a difficult reality to translate to the screen, but dramatizing the repetitiveness of the process served another purpose: the affirmation that mundanity — like despair, joy or anxiety — exists in hyper-politicized lives, too.
“It’s making a statement without having to make a huge statement,” said Ackie. “Sometimes just being there and existing in that space is enough of a statement.”
“When I watched it, I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s just me being me with a different name!’” continued Ackie, who described the story line as one in a growing body of narratives in which “women of color are just being allowed to be human.”
In the episode, “Master of None” also pays careful attention to in vitro fertilization, with details that may be caught by only the most watchful eye — or by those who have gone through it themselves. Ansari and Waithe consulted IVF patients and doctors to ensure the story they were telling was as close to the truth as possible. In fact, the episode was inspired by the experience of one of Ansari’s close friends, who is also named Alicia and was going through IVF herself.
“I was working on the scripts in a coffee shop in London and I stepped outside and called my friend,” he recalled of his first attempts to write the story. “I ended up being on the phone for about an hour and a half as she went through her whole ordeal and I quickly realized this was an incredibly compelling story and a perfect area for an episode.”
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Momentum for the story line grew as he consulted more of his friends who had undergone IVF treatment. “As I had all these conversations, I just tried to keep track of the emotional moments — the fears, the frustrations, the lighter moments, the joys — that seemed to overlap in the experiences,” he continued.
Even filming during the COVID-19 pandemic played a role, as the anxiety of the time found its way onto the screen.
“Lena said, ‘Whatever you feel on a given day, bring it to the set,‘” Ackie recalled. “That was the advice I felt most appropriate for the show.” The script, written before the pandemic, was eerily prescient in its emphasis on constriction, conveyed often in the stillness of the sterile fertility clinic or the somber atmosphere of Alicia and Denise’s quiet home upstate.
The season’s aesthetic, a departure from the previous two, informs the mood, especially when so much is left unsaid. As director, Ansari ditched the widescreen format in favor of the classic “Academy ratio,” its tighter frame a visual metaphor for the many forms of entrapment Alicia feels. Kevin Fortune, Ackie’s stylist, also gave her character hairstyles that reflected her increasing exhaustion throughout the treatment.
“Every day I see that,” Francisca Steyn said of working with patients in similar situations as Alicia. Steyn, a fertility nurse who works closely with LGBTQ patients, was the on-set IVF consultant, ensuring the show got the experience right. Actors like Cordelia Blair, who plays Alicia’s nurse-turned-emotional rock, worked with Steyn to make the terminology accurate and procedural motions more realistic.
For Alicia’s monitoring appointments over the course of the episode, for instance, Nurse Cordelia’s movement of the ultrasound wand, Alicia’s evolving reactions to the procedure, and the illuminated images on the ultrasound screen were all rehearsed again and again so as to mimic real life.
Nurse Cordelia’s supportive presence was informed by Blair’s real-life experience in palliative care: “There is a lot of silent loneliness; you have to then figure out what’s going on in that person’s emotional silence,” she said. “Learning how to read emotional silence helped me in my role as Nurse Cordelia.
“I wanted her to be my daughter,” Blair continued, referring to her character’s relationship with Alicia. “It just felt like I could relate with her. ... It went beyond a professional to almost a friend relationship.”
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Blair was also moved by her real-life friend undergoing IVF treatment at the same time the show was filming. “I found it quite emotional,” she said. Asked how closely Alicia’s journey reflected that of her friend, Blair replied, “Exactly.”
Debuting to a world radically changed by COVID-19, “Moments in Love” eschews “Master of None’s” more lighthearted elements for a dogged look at reality.
“In general, I didn’t even want to do ‘Master of None’ Season 3 for a long time,” said Ansari. “I was always very open about not wanting to do the show unless we had something truly exciting and new.”
The result is a meticulously crafted story that informs viewers as much as it invites them to see themselves in it. Even those who’ve never faced infertility or undergone in vitro fertilization.
“Rather than just giving up, she fought,” as Blair said of Alicia. “She got an inner strength, and she just decided, ‘OK, this is what I want.’ And she went after it.”
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