From Edward vs Jacob to Dean vs Jess, the love triangle is a quintessential element of teen media, and Never Have I Ever is no exception. In the show’s first season, we are introduced to Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she begins her sophomore year of high school. Attempting to quieten her grief over the sudden death of her beloved father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), Devi focuses her attention on getting a boyfriend. Devi finds herself caught between Paxton Yoshida-Hall (Darren Barnet), an attractive and popular athlete, and Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), Devi’s childhood nemesis and chief academic rival. On the surface, Season 1 seems to be a typical reiteration of classic romance archetypes. Ben and Devi share an “enemies-to-lovers” dynamic, with the trauma of an inattentive family as well as a genuine affection for Devi hidden beneath his smarmy exterior. Meanwhile, Paxton is a “jock with a heart of gold,” displaying consideration and respect towards Devi and her sexual boundaries, as well as being a caring older brother figure. Although both Paxton and Ben are developed characters, to Devi, Ben is “smart,” and Paxton is “hot,” as well as “sweet to his sister.” Initially, in Season 2, as in the previous season, it seems that they are more temporary distractions from her grief than love interests, prompting her therapist, Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) to ask her “Do you even like both these boys?”
But throughout the course of this season, Ben and Paxton are no longer cast as ideas but actual potential romantic rivals. While Season 1 seems to favour Ben, it is Paxton who undergoes the most significant character development in Season 2. Although Ben is a worthy sparring partner, he is also a staid stock character and has limited romantic appeal. Meanwhile, Paxton begins the season as a handsome but emotionally unintelligent airhead, but the potential loss of a swimming scholarship and his public humiliation at the hands of Devi lead him to interrogate his identity. By the end of the season, Paxton becomes a worthy rival — he is eager to challenge himself academically and willing to confront his ego, leading him to ask Devi to be his girlfriend. When Ben gloomily watches the new couple at the winter dance after being told that Devi’s first choice wasn’t always Paxton, it bears little tension, as it seems it doesn’t really matter anyway. A huge part of what made the first season of Never Have I Ever interesting was the promised deconstruction of classic rom-com tropes, so the decision to lean on them so heavily in the second season is a little disappointing.
Another slightly disappointing aspect of the second season is the show’s depiction (or lack thereof) of Tamil culture and identity. Having previously been reticent to meaningfully explore South Asian identity in her previous works, Mindy Kaling’s decision to helm a show based on the Indian-American experience is undeniably a welcome one. However, as Rohan Naahar states, the show is “clearly the creation of someone who is separated by a palpable generational distance from their culture,” a fact made evident by the introduction of Devi’s paternal grandmother, Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty). When Nalini realises that India is no longer her home, she instead brings back “a little bit of India” with her to America in the form of Nirmala. The introduction of Nirmala hints at exciting new storylines — further insight into the character of Mohan, the exploration of immigrant identity from the perspective of another generation, the opportunity for Devi to further explore her cultural heritage. Ultimately, Nirmala’s character brings very little to the show, aside from trite jokes about overfeeding her loved ones, and explorations of Tamil identity and culture in Never Have I Ever do not seem to evolve beyond smatterings of common Tamil diminutives such as ‘kutti’ and ‘kanna’.
Yet one way in which the show evolves beyond repetitive depictions of Indian culture is in the development of the relationship between Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi. While in Season 1, Nalini is the perfect archetype of the Super-Strict Indian Mum, her reunion with Devi in Malibu to scatter Mohan’s ashes leads Devi to feel “close to her mum for the first time in a while.” Likewise, Nalini learns to be more considerate and understanding of Devi. But their newfound mutual trust and respect poses a new problem for Nalini, as she finds herself drawn to rival dermatologist, Dr. Chris Jackson (Common). Upon the discovery of their relationship, Devi cruelly comments “I guess that’s why you didn’t seem too upset by Dad’s death.” Once the strict enforcer of conservative cultural norms, Nalini becomes unmoored in her attempt to navigate her ongoing grief with her own desires. It is now Nalini who seeks mercy from Devi, asking her “Are you the only one around here that gets to make these rash decisions?” Their shifting dynamic interrogates the uncertainty of questioning tradition and repairing relationships as an immigrant family.
While the show may struggle to effectively ground itself in the specificity of Tamil culture, it so accurately articulates the experience of a South Asian teenage girl navigating two worlds amidst the steady undercurrent of grief. The constant rejection and humiliation she faces, such as newly being crowned “Crazy Devi”, is exacerbated by the fact that she frequently seeks refuge in her last voicemail from her father, in which he refers to her as his “perfect girl,” knowing she’s anything but. Devi’s impetuous and selfish actions are depicted with bemused affection and understanding, whether it’s spying on Nalini when she (correctly) suspects that she’s on a date or trying in vain to prevent Ben and her new “Indian frenemy” Aneesa (Megan Suri) from hooking up. Still, at least she’s trying.
Never Have I Ever Season 1 & 2 are available to stream in full on Netflix
by Madhu Manivannan