The first season of Mindy Kaling’s teen dramedy, Never Have I Ever, won hearts. Its exploration of Indian American identity and its zany, comedic charms. Now it’s back for its anticipated sophomore season. With its motto seeming to be “do everything season one did, but, like, more.”
We open the season with Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Thinking about the prospect of an impending move to India, deciding to have her cake and eat it too. She sets out to date both rival-turned-love-interest Ben (Jarren Lewinson) and longtime-crush Paxton (Darren Barnet) without the two boys knowing. The chaotics that ensues makes up the bulk of the first couple of episodes. But as the whole situation implodes, the rest of the season revolves around Devi’s attempts to handle the fallout.
There’s something admittedly refreshing about seeing a trope well-worn as the high school love triangle retread with an Indian girl given center stage. It’s definitely where romcom-aficionado Kaling is the happiest exploring. Ramakrishnan shines here, charismatic and full of propulsive energy and great comic timing. You’ll be watching through your fingers at some of the genuinely epic secondhand embarrassment Devi inspires. And Ramakrishnan never holds back on committing to it all the way.
Still, while Ramakrishnan’s energetic lead performance and more substantial plotlines for Devi’s best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) mean audiences who enjoyed the first season will likely love this one. I couldn’t help but feel the show’s sophomore effort hit some serious stumbling blocks by way of writing. Season 1 was at its core was about the bond between three women. Devi, her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). Navigating their often tenuous family dynamic while coping with the grief of having just lost Devi’s father (Sendhil Ramamurthy). This meant that even at its hammiest, the show had genuine emotional gravitas to ground it. The three Vishwakumar women are disparate this season, and almost all their plotlines are weaker for it.
Moorjani’s character suffers the most. Her story revolving mainly around Kamala’s struggles to garner respect from her male colleagues as a woman in STEM, flounders. Neither as addictive as Devi’s high school hijinks. Nor as full of pathos as Nalini’s first tentative forays into romance since losing her husband. While the issue at hand is important, it’s dealt with in an arc that is disappointingly predictable and paint-by-numbers. There’s also some exploration of Kamala’s relationship with boyfriend Prashant. But again, this never really does much except slow episodes down to grinding halts. It’s not a device that seems to push or change Kamala in any roads that she already been down last season. And little would have been lost without it.
Poorna Jagannathan is arguably the strongest performer on the cast. She provides a uniquely subtle and quiet presence on screen, scoring Nalini’s “overbearing Indian mother” persona with grief and vulnerability. (She also has the only remotely authentic Indian accent for miles around). This season, while Nalini and Devi still butt heads a fair amount, there’s less animosity and angst between the two. Especially when you compare it to the friction between them before their reconciliation at the end of season 1. Much of her screen time this season is spent with a potential new love interest in the shape of Dr. Jackson (Common), a rival dermatologist with whom she has more in common than she realizes. It’s enjoyable to see a more lighthearted side to Nalini.
However, as marvellous as Jagannathan is, there’s something missing this time around. The emotional beats between Nalini and Devi don’t quite carry the same gravitas as they did last season. Somehow, it feels there is less a focus on their relationship. More attention is on how other people around them affect and react to it. The later episodes seem to attempt to replicate the genuine rawness and vulnerability the first season. But it feels a little less organic and more rushed.
Another significant component of the season comes in the shape of Aneesa (Megan Suri). The new girl at Sherman Oaks High. Devi is instantly threatened by the presence of another Indian Girl in her school. Feeling insecure at the prospect of losing her status as the “only Brown girl in school”. An admittedly perplexing status, given that the San Fernando Valley isn’t exactly known for an absence of Desis. Just last season, we saw the school host a well-attended Ganesh Puja. Devi is jealous of Aneesa’s effortless popularity, looks, and charm. This becomes all the more complicated by the fact that Aneesa instantly gravitates towards Devi. Thrilled at the idea of having an Indian friend.
The dynamic between Aneesa and Devi is on the surface of it, the most exciting part of the season. The conflict that rages between Devi’s jealousy of Aneesa and their burgeoning friendship drives a lot of Devi’s emotional development. Intersecting in a big way with the season’s big love triangle — and yet feels frustratingly surface-level and simplified.
Devi feeling threatened by another Indian student should have been a fascinating point from the show to explore. Looking into the intricacies of Indian American identity and the unique insecurities and vulnerabilities that often plague diaspora kids. It could have been an affirming celebration of young people of colour learning to form a community for themselves. Unfortunately, it never really goes much deeper than Devi oscillating between seething with jealousy and then feeling guilty. Because Aneesa also knows what it’s like to have a strict Brown mom. Which, if Never Have I Ever is to be believed, is the only defining characteristic of the Indian community.
Ultimately, Never Have I Ever is frustrating. It leaves you feeling like there is a much better show buried somewhere within this one. The cast is charming and buoyed by delightful chemistry. It’s impossible not to love the idea of a show about a Desi girl who is gets to be at the centre of this romantic, funny, messy coming-of-age story. But the writing constantly falls short. Only ever wanting to pay lip service to the deeper topics it shows off. But never really having anything insightful to say about them.