In the first episode of Season 3 of Never Have I Ever, the possibility of the show changing tack is teased, with Dr. Ryan (Niecy Nash) remarking to our now coupled-up protagonist, “Wait a minute. Did we discover that being in a romantic relationship doesn’t necessarily solve all of our problems?” Yet her attempt at a breakthrough is defused by Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who deploys a typically pop culture-inspired comeback – “Nice try, Dr. Ryan. The entire Olivia Rodrigo album would disagree with you.” And so it seems we are redirected to what has been the meat of the show so far.
We pick up two weeks after Season 2’s finale, with Paxton (Darren Barnet) and Devi walking arm in arm down the Sherman Oaks High corridor after making their relationship official at the Winter Ball. Yet Devi’s dream relationship is quickly threatened – first by degrading gossip, then by an anonymous tip that threatens her perception of Paxton, but most crucially, by Devi’s insecurities. In deciding to end their relationship, Paxton slams the brakes on Devi’s hopes of shortcutting her way to self-actualization through romantic bliss, telling her, “I don’t think we can have a real relationship until you like yourself.” Although their breakup ending was probably inevitable at this point in the series, it seems unfair that a relationship that has been two seasons in the making was barely given screen time nor the opportunity to evolve.
Instead of being able to observe Devi’s reckoning with the dissolution of her ultimate fantasy, we are granted a little reprieve from the show’s constant onslaught of romantic entanglements and instead hurried along into Devi’s junior year (and another relationship) by way of a seasonal montage. Cajoled by her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) into bringing Des (Anirudh Pisharody), the son of a new friend, to a house party, Devi assumes that he will be a “medical-grade dork.” Creator Mindy Kaling has (somewhat unfairly, I would argue) long been criticized for her tendency to cast white men as love interests. Still, the introduction of Des seems like a reasonable and welcome attempt to explore further how South Asian women’s sexualities are shaped. Although Des and Devi were not meant to be, their relationship allows Devi to challenge her conceptions of Indian men and her own self-worth.
Aside from the delightfully chaotic pairing of Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Trent (Benjamin Norris), the show’s emphasis on romance mainly falls flat. A relationship is kindled within Devi’s friend group as Aneesa (Megan Suri) finds comfort in Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) in a moment of loneliness but is just as quickly extinguished with little build-up or explanation. Last season, we watched Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) resist the misogynistic tyranny of her boss, but this season, we mostly see Kamala through the context of her fledgling relationship with Mr. Kulkarni (Utkarsh Ambudkar), Devi’s teacher. And perhaps most disappointingly, it’s hinted that Devi may retreat to the comfort of her mutually snarky but occasionally affectionate rapport with Ben. It’s a classic, trope-filled relationship that viewers are presumably meant to find endearing but feels outdated and charmless, not least because its leading man has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
However, Devi’s relationship with herself and her non-romantic relationships with others continue to be a highlight of the show. Once, the way Devi saw Paxton was akin to idolatry, but post-break-up, she can recognize him as just human. At graduation, Devi tells Paxton she got through her dad’s death because of him. When he questions how, she tells him, “By being a dream.” It’s a moment that celebrates the seeds of hope sowed by the prospect of romantic connection, but most importantly, Devi’s capacity to move forward by drawing this from within.
Notably, Devi’s relationship with her mother is developed this season. Although the show continues to lean into tropes typically associated with South Asian families for comedic effect, it balances this with a genuine effort to explore the possibility of a mutually open and trusting mother and daughter relationship amidst cultural differences. Once governed by rigid notions of success and an insistence on curtailing her daughter’s sexuality, Nalini begins to embrace Devi’s flaws and gains a newfound trust in her. It is Nalini who, when comforting a heartbroken Devi, articulates what I hope will be the show’s most resounding message for its viewers: “You’re never too much, and you’re always enough.”
Never Have I Ever Season 3 is streaming on Netflix
by Madhu Manivannan