Note: This review contains what some may consider mild spoilers.
Never Have I Ever… seen a show recover so well from a sophomore slump. Okay, that’s an exaggeration for effect. Plenty of other shows have come back from second season dips. Regardless, this season of Never Have I Ever is back to its first season strength, with better storylines, more defined character development, and better humor than the second season. Thankfully, they also took my note and introduced a third love interest for Devi. (They did not, however, bring back Dr. Jackson (Common), which is a loss for everyone.) Do I still have plenty of notes and constructive criticism? (That’s rhetorical. Obviously, I do.)
Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) make their official debut at Sherman Oaks High as a couple and Devi is feeling pretty damn good about it. For about all of five seconds. Then she overhears some girls discussing her in the bathroom and theorizing that she must be putting out because why else would Paxton ev-AR be with a girl like her? Sigh. Poor Devi. And poor those girls for being conditioned to think that way.
Devi and Paxton are decidedly not having sex. In fact, she and Paxton have not yet come close to sealing that particular deal, a fact which is awkwardly confirmed by our trusty narrator John McEnroe. Devi, who, if you’ll recall, has felt like she was late catching the train to Pound Town since the beginning of the first season, minorly freaks out, and decides that the only way she can keep a boy as hot as Paxton is to put out. So, clearly, Devi still has some unresolved issues around self-esteem, idealizing Paxton’s physical beauty, and trust, which, fair enough, because that stuff—especially when it comes to sex—is deeply ingrained and doesn’t just magically resolve itself overnight. Still, her character does evolve this season to be more honest and forthright, which is a welcome relief after last season’s constant barrage of hijinks and lojinks and midjinks. Though she is still pretty self-centered, which I feel is merited and necessary given who she is and her age. She also starts to look at things from other people’s perspectives and to give other people’s opinions about her less credence. Sniff. These television babies, they grow up so fast.
The conversations between Devi and her friends and between Devi and Paxton about whether to have or not to have the sex are pretty well done in terms of keeping a balance between serious and light, while also making it clear just how horny and confused teenagers can be. When Devi worries that it’s too short a time span to go from kissing to intercourse, Aneesa (Megan Suri) shrugs and says not to have sex with him yet, adding that she’s not having sex with Ben (Jaren Lewison). John McEnroe pops in to say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Not to me personally, but for this group of girls.” Which is a very well-timed line.
But seriously, a thread throughout the season is about people figuring out how much and what they’re ready for, both physically and emotionally, in a relationship, and the importance of making a decision that you’re comfortable with and works for you, even if it sounds strange to other people. That’s true whether you’re Devi deciding between staying at second base and watching TikTok videos or having sex. Or you’re Kamala (Richa Moorjani) and deciding between getting engaged to a guy with a perfect jawline (Sendhil Ramamurthy) with a whole airplane full of relatives ready to fly in from India for the wedding or just dating the guy (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who has to Wikipedia Hindu holidays. (I vote for the second option, please.)
I should tell you that once again this season, the series will wait until episode 9 to whip out an absolutely heartening and tear-jerking moment between Devi and her mother (Poorna Jagannathan), which will help you understand so much of Devi’s insecurities. While I continue to wish these moments weren’t all back loaded into the end of the season and that they got a bit more air time, I do really appreciate the balance and depth they add to both Devi and Nalini’s characters.The same is true of the cultural touchstones that are scattered throughout the show. Hindu celebrations that Devi can’t necessarily explain to her friends, but feels an intimate connection to. The intergenerational discussions of marriage and what qualities they each feel are important in a future partner. Even the mentions of foods and drinks. The show could certainly work without these references and storylines, but it would lack its current depth, realism, and humor.
Anyway, unless you’re new to watching television, it’s pretty obvious that Devi and Paxton will not be together until the end of time, but before they go splitskies, Devi gets Paxton to apologize to a lot girls he previously kissed and dissed. And look, Paxton’s mea culpas are lovely, but also kind of an easy out of the whole problem that is shaming girls for being promiscuous and congratulating boys. It’s explained Paxton that felt awkward after these sexual situations and didn’t know what to do, so he avoided these girls? Okaaaay. But he did it over and over and over and over and over and… You get the picture. Paxton’s been with a lot of girls and apparently felt awkward with all of them. Like, he never thought about any of their feelings until Devi came along? It’s realistic, maybe, but I still struggle with the concept of One Good Woman ™ opening his eyes to his deviant ways and helping absolve him of his sins. Maybe it’s not that big a deal in this particular series, but it’s a trope that we see over and over again, and it’s just so problematic. Plus, he caused some of them severe emotional trauma and probably a lot of social fallout, but his quick conveyor belt-style apology is enough to soothe all those wounds and make him a heroically nice guy? I mean, this is a perennial kind of problem in Mindy Kaling’s work for me, where things about feminism or sexual promiscuity fall shy of the mark.
And while I’m on this soapbox of sorts, let’s discuss Aneesa. She and Ben are doing less than well when this season starts, something about which Ben is blissfully unaware of because he’s so wrapped up in trying to score extra credit (not a euphemism), insulting his teacher for going to Sarah Lawrence, maybe still pining for Devi, and being condescending to everyone who doesn’t have as much book knowledge as he does. The boy is so focused on being top of the class and getting into Columbia that he can’t see the person he’s dating for anything other than how she doesn’t measure up. He insults Aneesa when she doesn’t recognize a reference to the book 1984, he’s aghast when she’s satisfied with a grade in the low-80s on a test, and he doesn’t really see the value in her big soccer game. Aneesa is, understandably, fucking pissed and hurt.
She lands in the arms of someone who really seems to see and understand her, but that relationship is also mostly a vehicle to demonstrate how still Aneesa doesn’t fit with this brainier person. At one point Aneesa says that maybe she just needs to date a dumb jock for a while. The fuck?!? How is this not condescending to everyone, including the hypothetical dumb jock? I’ve gotta say that this lack of nuance and a seeming utter lack of comprehension that intelligence extends far beyond academic prowess is something that also perpetually irks me about Mindy Kaling’s shows. I mean, that’s not entirely fair. Yes, of course, the show recognizes other kinds of smarts, but they’re always held up in comparison to book smarts, which just doesn’t need to always be the gold standard of intelligence. And yes, I do understand the cultural aspect in this series. Like Nirmala’s (Ranjita Chakravarty) focus on Kamala dating an Indian man who meets all her qualifications for education and profession, but clearly the show’s writers are looking at the situation from a broader perspective, and even so, it often feels somewhat patronizing toward people like Aneesa and Devi’s teacher/Kamala’s Krush, Manish, who aren’t necessarily Academic Bowl champs. And I’d also argue that many of the secondary characters just feel too one dimensional. Wouldn’t they benefit from slight variations? Like the school principal who can only communicate at one volume or their teacher, Mr. Shapiro (Adam Shapiro) who is always too earnest and involved or the girl that Paxton dates who is basically a paper cutout of a stereotype. I feel like they’d all be so much better if they were given a a little more room subtlety and nuance—or at least self-awareness.
Though, to possibly partially contradict myself, one of my favorite characters this season is Trent, who has the very best opposites attract relationship with Eleanor. Trent will always be Trent, but his character does do some real broadening and deepening this season. I think Trent works as well as he does because he seems deeply self-aware (so I’m not really contradicting myself) and is largely at peace with who he is. There’s a moment when he admits he’s feeling insecure about something and it’s quite affecting. You know, if you can ignore that he uses the phrase “knee-deep in tang twenty-four-sevskies.” Plus, there’s a scene where he’s determinedly walking down a dark school hallway wearing Paxton’s full-length swim team warm up jacket, his long tresses freed of their usual backwards cap, which made me laugh out loud.
And in other opposites attract relationships Devi’s mother makes friends with a nutritionist named Rhyah (Sarayu Blue) who doesn’t believe in processed food and talks about Wellness. This friendship is for sure not as well-matched Trent and Eleanor—and everything is a downgrade after Common—but Rhyah has a son named Des (Anirudh Pisharody) who much to Devi’s surprise is not not a huge nerd (well, I mean, he is, but in a good way), but instead a very hot guy who also happens to have the hots for her. Thank Euclid for this boy who adds a new vertex to our love triangle! (The actor is 28, so I think John McEnroe and I can agree that it’s not creepy for me to note that he does have a Genetically Blessed Face.) Will Des simply be the catalyst that pushes Devi to realize many things about her life, or will he become the boy who puts the ka-thunk, ka-thunk in her heart cage? Never will I ever tell, but I can say it’s a pretty good ride along the way. Not that I’m saying anyone is getting ridden, but not that I’m saying they’re not. Never mind.