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TV TATTLE

Never Have I Ever's basic good TV storytelling is extremely hard to pull off

  • "For a comedy about awkward, messy teenagers, Never Have I Ever is astonishingly confident," says Joshua Rivera of Season 2 of the Mindy Kaling Netflix teen comedy she co-created with Lang Fisher. "In its second season, the Netflix comedy builds on a poignant, funny first season by continuing to nail a tricky balance between heartfelt realism and Disney Channel absurdism. It’s the kind of comedy that can delve into a tear-jerking meditation on grief in one scene, then seamlessly transition to over-the-top physical gags where a jock gets hit by a car. This balance makes it ridiculous, but also believable. It’s a comedy that’s hard to resist devouring in a single sitting, only partly because of incredible narration from tennis superstar John McEnroe." From Maitreyi Ramakrishnan's Devi on down, "Never Have I Ever’s characters are messy and raw in ways that feel true, even when they’re loud and elevated," says Rivera. "Devi is a bookish first-generation immigrant, but she’s also selfish and inconsiderate. She starts rumors, spies through a stranger’s skylight when she suspects her mom of going on a date, and tries to date both her crushes at the same time without either of them knowing. Devi is a hot mess, but her at times outlandish behavior is levied with moments that go straight for Friday Night Lights-level sincerity." Rivera adds: "Never Have I Ever takes its characters’ feelings seriously, and its writers work very hard to make sure the audience understands them. That way, when they do ridiculous things — like staging a marching-band apology performance, or trying to take two boys on a date to the same party, without alerting either one — viewers can laugh at the excess, but stay hooked because they understand. This is basic good TV storytelling, but it’s extremely hard to pull off. The approach needs everyone on both sides of the camera to agree about what to take seriously and what to goof off with. Never Have I Ever is one of the best shows on Netflix because it nails that balance, and showcases a high school that is nothing like high school, but still feels like it. It’s an appealing fantasy because it plays to such a familiar feeling. Part of the reason high school is tough is that it’s nothing like what the movies promised it would be. But what occasionally made it fun — and what Never Have I Ever recognizes — is the feeling that maybe, at any moment, it could be."

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    • Never Have I Ever still delivers in Season 2, but it needs to cut down on its "pileup of quirks" -- like John McEnroe's narration: "He was the plate of orange chicken on the table, invitingly tart but hardly necessary," Inkoo Kang says of the gimmick of using McEnroe to serve as narrator. But Kang adds that in Season 2, there is "more maximalism. Surprisingly, that’s not as bad as it sounds, with additions more suited to the show’s strengths," says Kang. She adds: "These story lines, building on the most compelling facets of Never Have I Ever’s first season, demonstrate that Kaling and Fisher have a robust grasp of what works, as well as which of their actors to lean on. But the duo are also too reluctant to jettison the components that no longer serve a purpose. (To their partial credit, Gears Brosnan does get a reduced role this time around.) The result is a follow-up season that, despite its greater narrative streamlining, feels crowded with characters and conflicts that make this otherwise sweetly horny, hijinks-fueled series feel bloated and weighed down. If there’s anything that adolescents or their parents know, it’s that sometimes the people you love the most are the hardest to be around. That insight is often the driving force of Never Have I Ever, which has a wholly believable narcissist at its center who chases away her mom, her friends and most reliably anyone who wants to get close."
    • Never Have I Ever Season 2 continues to bring that perfect blend of heart and humor with a little sting underlying everything: "It’s hard to capture the magic of that first season, but Season 2 has something special all its own," says Kristen Lopez, adding: "It’s amazing what Maitreyi Ramakrishnan can do with this series. Because the sense of loss isn’t as overt as it was in Season 1, she’s having to play with far more complexity than before. Ramakrishnan has such a masterful control over not just her emotions but her facial expressions, whether that’s being surprised at Paxton’s attraction to her or her lingering worries that her mom believes she’s crazy. This season, Devi gets to evoke a more confident maturity and Ramakrishnan doesn’t hit big milestones but really illustrates the sense of growth over 10 episodes. Really, this season is about growth for all the characters, but it’s most compelling within Devi’s family."
    • The good news is that Never Have I Ever's second season is just about as excellent as the first in every way: "Ultimately, a show is only as strong as its lead, and once again," says Carly Lane, "Ramakrishnan proves why she's the one to build an entire series around, not only in Devi's most ridiculous and chaotic moments (the show literally describes some of her wildest antics as 'pulling a Devi') but in the scenes that call on her to be quiet, vulnerable, and having to come to grips with the real emotions that drive her to make some confusing and (in true teen fashion) dramatic decisions."
    • Comparing Chrissy Teigen vs. Gigi Hadid's narration: Advanced screeners featuring Teigen's voice narrating an episode focused on Paxton were sent out to the media before she stepped down in June in the midst her bullying controversy. Hadid was tapped as a last-minute replacement. "Except for Teigen’s mention of her Asian ethnicity, another commonality between her and Paxton, the voiceover remains almost exactly the same," says Lorraine Ali, adding: "And ultimately, the narrator swap does not take away from the story of the episode, much less change Paxton’s arc. The biggest different is tonal: Teigen’s voice was animated and playful, Hadid’s is cool and low-key. But even this transformation isn’t jarring within the context of the series — Teigen and Hadid both were, after all, playing themselves."
    • If acting is Poorna Jagannathan’s calling, challenging stereotypes is her superpower: "She’s been poking holes in stock depictions of brown, Asian and immigrant women with smaller roles in TV’s most talked-about series for the better part of a decade: House of Cards, Better Call Saul, Big Little Lies, The Night Of, RamyDefending Jacob," says Lorraine Ali of Jagannathan. "But with Never Have I Ever, whose second season premieres Thursday, Jagannathan moves from the margins, where so many women of color continue to be relegated, to the center of the story. Jagannathan embodies much of what made Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s young-adult comedy about an Indian American high schooler a breakthrough series when it debuted last year, from its innate understanding and brilliant comedic manipulation of first/second generation culture clash to its nuanced portrayal of how grief, anger and fierce family love shape our lives. Nalini could have easily been a composite of stereotypes — an unyielding South Asian parent, a successful Indian doctor, a dutiful daughter-in-law. But in Jagannathan’s hands, she’s a refreshing representation of the realities behind cultural typecasting." Jagannathan says of playing Devi's mom: "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Yes, Devi is an overachieving, nerdy Indian American girl and Nalini is a tiger mom with zero capacity for finding middle ground. But they are all so much more than that. And that’s what makes this character so fulfilling to play. You see Nalini’s desires, her vulnerability, her grief alongside her relentlessly strict parenting. You see her as a three-dimensional person — something that American TV rarely affords minorities.”
    • Never Have I Ever's Season 2 soundtrack features dreamy electro-pop songs and passionate bangers that get at Devi's brainy and thirsty sides
    • Maitreyi Ramakrishnan admits "there is a little bit of pressure because you want to deliver" in Season 2: "Honestly, I had a lot of anxiety, and that’s not an exaggeration," she says. "I expressed all of these anxieties to Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher — and I love them so much, I don’t know how they deal with that — but they were like, 'Hey, you got this, you’re good. You are meant to be here. And if you sucked, we would tell you.' (I realized) I’ve got to trust the people that I trusted equally in Season 1 when I had no idea what all the technical terms meant when it came to filming. I’ve just got to trust that people will be looking out for me, especially Mindy and Lang. They would never let me look dumb or do a bad job. I was also sick and tired of just being anxious. I wanted to just have fun, like I did with Season 1 — have fun with the cast and just live in the moment." How has Ramakrishnan seen herself grow as an actor? "Oh my God, the crying," she says. "Just bam, all tears are real. All tears that you see, are just real sad boy tears. Just trusting my instincts when it comes to crying, but also my comedic instincts, when it’s physical comedy or just the line delivery. I trust those gut feelings, saying, 'OK this is gonna be funny. Let’s actually try it, just go for it.'"
    • Ramakrishnan on filming Season 2's coyote scene: "When Devi first sees the coyote in the tomato garden, that was both of us but it was from a distance," she says. "It wasn't too close, we just make it look close." Ramakrishnan says she did get to pet the coyote.

    TOPICS: Never Have I Ever, Netflix, Chrissy Teigen, Gigi Hadid, John McEnroe, Lang Fisher, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Mindy Kaling, Poorna Jagannathan




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