TV Shows

Never Have I Ever Season 2 Shines by Loving Its Messy Protagonist

Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Season 2 of the Netflix series Never Have I Ever.

Devi Vishwakumar is making bad decisions. Again.

“I’m, like, really mature about tons of shit!” she declares in the Season 2 premiere of Never Have I Ever. Then she makes a half-dozen immature choices that ripple through the next nine episodes. Played on screen by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan but narrated by famously hot-headed former tennis player John McEnroe, Devi spends her time sneaking out, starting rumors about people, and generally finding herself in hot water. Her impulsive and selfish tendencies just get the best of her. It seems like every time she sets something right, she ruins something else.

Never Have I Ever is refreshing in its warts-and-all portrayal of a teen girl with specific cultural pressures going through the hardest time of her life. When we first met Devi, she was grieving the sudden death of her father and rebelling by spreading lies intended to make her more popular. The show’s writers are endlessly empathetic toward their main character. That graciousness holds together plots that, in lesser hands, would make her unforgivable.

Despite often handling big emotions, Never Have I Ever Season 2 is funnier than Season 1. Devi and her two friends, lesbian STEM nerd Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and drama geek Eleanor (Ramona Young), ease into a goofy sort of chemistry. It makes more of the jokes land this time around. One unique plot follows Fabiola as she attempts to become familiar with queer pop culture after she comes out. The surprisingly resonant story demonstrates the trickiness of finding a community that matches one’s identity. It’s also hilarious to see Fabiola’s baffled reaction to touchstones like The L Word and Carol.

Never Have I Ever also introduces several new characters in Season 2, and all of them are a hit. Megan Suri is Aneesa, an effortlessly cool new Indian girl whose arrival at school makes Devi feel more unpopular than ever. Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Mindy Project) and Alexandra Billings (Transparent), actors who are always a welcome addition to any cast, play two of her teachers. Meanwhile, in the best running joke of the season, Zac Efron-look-alike Malcolm (Tyler Alvarez) is a classmate who gained fame in a Disney Channel series called The Stretched Out Life of Kyle French — about a magic limo, naturally.

As much as it’s about grief and growing up as an Indian-American girl, Never Have I Ever is a rom-com at heart. Much of Season 2’s drama revolves around Devi’s relationships with hot, popular Paxton (Darren Barnet) and nerdy former nemesis Ben (Jaren Lewison). In an era experiencing a much-discussed, seemingly snowballing decline in sexuality on screen, it’s refreshing that this show made for and about teenagers isn’t neutered. These girls are thirsty as hell. After all, Paxton69! is Devi’s password for everything. Their desires are portrayed as a natural, if hyper-motivating, part of their personalities.

It’s not just the kids having fun, either. One particularly lovely new storyline involves Devi’s mother (Poorna Jagannathan), the series’ most serious character, finding some vulnerability in an unexpected relationship. There are a lot of bad romantic comedies out there, but with professed genre lover Mindy Kaling running the show, Never Have I Ever continues to deliver picture-perfect moments of both chemistry and angst in Season 2.

The only weak spot of Never Have I Ever Season 2 is Devi’s ongoing refusal to learn from her mistakes. There’s a powerful emotional culmination to her misbehavior, but it doesn’t hit as hard as the first season finale. Her willful mess-ups are clearly going to reach a point of diminishing returns. “I’d love it if I didn’t have to spend most of my day apologizing to people,” she says. Yet she soon finds herself meddling in a plot that feels like something straight out of a Nickelodeon sitcom.

There’s something groundbreaking about a female protagonist with impulse issues and a grief-rooted tendency for self-sabotage. But it’s also hard to see her hurting others and getting hurt again and again. The series is clever and more nuanced than it seems, so I believe Devi’s continuing arc is in good hands. The best shows about deeply imperfect but loveable characters — Fleabag and You’re the Worst among them — include game-changing moments of introspection. If it returns for a third season, Never Have I Ever would do well to incorporate some of its own.

In the meantime, with Season 2, Never Have I Ever remains a stand-out among its contemporaries. It’s a great teen show with heart, horniness, and humor to spare.

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