Our “favourite Hindu girl from the San Fernando valley” is back for a second season. A charming coming-of-age comedy series on Netflix, Never Have I Ever follows the young adult adventures of Devi Vishwakumar (played by an infinitely watchable Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, the show follows Devi’s trials navigating her second year of high school, while trying to be cool and getting herself a boyfriend. All while dealing with her strict mother Nalini (an excellent Poorna Jagannathan), and coming to terms with the recent loss of her father.
One of the first major US comedy shows to focus on an Indian American family, the show’s first season was a mostly wonderful, sweet comfort-watch centered on characters you couldn’t help but fall for. It was let down, however, by its glaringly outsider perspective of Indian-ness, opting for a tick box exercise in hitting generic, surface-level stereotypes over specificity and nuance.
Thankfully, Kaling and Fisher serve up a stronger sophomore season, doubling down on the show’s strengths. Never Have I Ever works best when it focuses on its characters, rather than a well-intentioned but clunky examination of their culture. (For example, this season thankfully has no “Introduction to Indian 101 episode” such as last season’s shaky Ganesh Puja episode).
Season two picks up moments after the season one finale’s cliffhanger, with Devi in the midst of a love triangle. One the one hand, there’s Paxton Hall Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the school’s resident popular hot guy whom Devi’s been pining after for as long as she can remember. On the other, there’s Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), her arch rival-turned-friend whom she unexpectedly develops feelings for.
But, despite this being the primary plot point going in, perhaps my favourite thing about this season is how quickly the boy drama dissipates and the focus shifts to female friendships. The ‘big drama’ this season is the unexpected arrival of a new Indian girl in school, Aneesa (a charming Megan Suri), meaning Devi is no longer the only one. Aneesa is instantly likeable and immediately popular. In short—a threat. How their arc of insecurity-led competition gradually evolves into companionship and common ground was, for me, the soul of this season, carrying far more meaning and weight than the who-will-Devi-end-up-with romantic drama that ends the season.
The beating heart of the show remains Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s endlessly endearing performance. Despite Devi’s many flaws and mistakes, Ramakrishnan demands you feel what she’s feeling and root for her regardless of her actions.
That said, the other issues of the show still persist, though they are less egregious this time around. For example, Devi’s life, and the entire show, is narrated by foul-mouthed tennis champ John McEnroe. It’s a genius concept on paper with much potential for comedy gold, but it was rarely funny in season one and instead used to consistently tell us how characters are thinking and feeling and why. It wasn’t a narrative crutch as much as it was a narrative La-Z-Boy recliner which also spoon feeds you the story. This time around, however, there is (some) clear course correction as McEnroe’s voiceover does veer more towards comedy and commentary rather than unnecessary underlining events.
Then, there’s the curious case of Kamala, Devi’s very smart, very good looking older cousin from India who lives with them while she’s studying in college. Kamala is played by Indian American actress Richa Moorjani, so obviously she has a cringe-y, cartoonish Indian accent that’s uncomfortable to sit through, making it impossible to take her seriously. While Moorjani is (slightly) less grating in season two, her boyfriend Prashant (Indian american actor Rushi Kota) more than makes up for it with an ‘Indian accent’ that would make Apu from The Simpsons feel uneasy.
Luckily, there are enough sparkling new additions to the cast to balance things out and add credibility to the proceedings. The always enjoyable Utkarsh Ambudkar joins the mix as Devi’s supportive teacher Mr Kulkarni. As does Ranjita Chakravarty as Devi’s grandmother from Chennai who moves in this season (Oh the indescribable joys of seeing an Indian character played by an actual Indian person). There’s also a couple of interesting celebrity cameos, joining McEnroe on monologue duties.
Far less effective, however, is Nalini’s romantic interest Dr Chris Jackson played by rapper and actor Common. Not only does he sleepwalk through the role with an impressive commitment to speaking as slowly as humanly possible, their entire romantic arc just doesn’t ring true, with the subsequent blowout of Devi seeing her mother moving on getting resolved far too easily.
Despite that, in the end, Never Have I Ever serves up everything you’d want from a second season. It’s wittier, warmer and goes deeper with its characters, with plenty of heart and humour along the way. The beating heart of the show remains Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s endlessly endearing performance. Despite Devi’s many flaws and mistakes, Ramakrishnan demands you feel what she’s feeling and root for her regardless of her actions. She’s a character I care deeply about, and I’ll happily watch as many seasons of her life unfold as the show chooses to offer.
Feature image courtesy ISABELLA B. VOSMIKOVA/NETFLIX © 2021
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