One of the most pleasant surprises on streaming last year was Netflix's sitcom from executive producer Mindy Kaling, Never Have I Ever. Centered on the teenage life of a first-generation Indian-American girl living in Sherman Oaks, CA, the show's freshman season was tart yet warm-hearted, with a refreshingly high batting average when it came to jokes. The series returns this week with a new season, and once again it's a pleasure to be in the world of Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), as she finds new ways to be kind of a disaster.
Last season we saw Devi attempt to rise above her rank as a brainy striver whose nerdy trappings, overprotective mother, and status as an Indian-American often kept her on the outs of the life of the cool, reckless teen she'd like to be. When last we left off, Devi had just kissed her sometime-friend, most-of-the-time rival Ben (Jaren Lewison) in the front seat of his car. At the same time she was in the process of getting hot jock Paxton (Darren Barnet) to maybe fall for her as well. And while the prospect of two boyfriends — one hot and popular, the other your intellectual sparring partner — may seem a windfall for a teen outcast, it's also prime fodder for disaster.
Unlike a show like Hulu's Love, Victor, which blands out its outsider main character to make him more broadly relatable, Devi has some seriously prickly character traits: she's angry, impulsive, and insecure. She's a loyal friend but prone to doing incredibly thoughtless things. She can't seem to handle the good things that come into her life. In other words, she's a classic teen.
And while Devi's romantic life sits precariously on the edge of chaos in Season 2, her home life doesn't get any less complicated either, with her mom Nalani (Poorna Jagannathan) still planning to move the family to India, and a new addition to the household further strengthening the show's at-home storylines.
The series also scores with another new addition, new-girl-at-school Aneesa (Megan Suri). Suddenly Devi isn't the only Indian girl at school anymore, which should be great news … only no. Because Aneesa isn't just the new Indian girl, she's also pretty, confident, and instantly more popular then Devi. Oh, and Devi's mom wants Devi to be friends with her, because she could use a good Indian influence. Devi is put in the uncomfortable middle between having a new friend who might actually understand her experience for once … or a new enemy who only makes her feel more inadequate. The teenage mind is a real battlefield.
Never Have I Ever grapples a bit in Season 2 with its own successes from Season 1. Having drawn such a wide canvas of compelling characters around Devi, all those characters now need to be fed. Last season saw both Paxton and Ben get showcase moments that let the audience in on their lives and personalities, getting us invested in why Devi would end up being torn between them. Ben doesn't get quite as much attention this go around, though Paxton gets his own highlight episode, with narration by Gigi Hadid (who was subbed in at the last minute for Chrissy Teigen after the latter's recent Twitter-based fall from grace).
The show does continue to find time for Devi's besties, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), with Fab awkwardly navigating her first relationship and finding herself intimidated by the cool queer spaces she's how a part of. El, meanwhile, gets a new boyfriend, a former Disney Channel teen star played by American Vandal's Kyle Alvarez.
Back home, Nalani remains a pillar of mom strength, continuing to wrestle with this daughter who insists on defying her. That relationship isn't nearly as fraught as it was in Season 1, leaving room for something of a love life for the widowed Nalani in a fellow doctor played by Common. Poorna Jagannathan is still giving the best performance in the show, but she has fewer moments to deliver on it this season, in part because Common is a bit underwhelming as her counterpart.
Meanwhile, Devi's high-achieving cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) gets a season-long storyline that sees her navigating institutional sexism and workplace politics as she begins her research fellowship. The storyline has its moments, but it keeps Kamala on an island for much of the season when the character works so well playing off of Devi.
Growing pains aside, Never Have I Ever remains a highly watchable and often lovable teen comedy. The decision to have the show narrated by an omniscient John McEnroe, pays off in a thousand different ways, with McEnroe's stiff delivery only enhancing the absurd appeal of the former bad boy of American tennis describing — and commenting on, often confrontationally — Devi's life. Whomever on the show's writing staff is in charge of assembling tennis facts for McEnroe to awkwardly compare to the life of a teenage Indian-American girl, I'd love to buy them a drink and then have a long talk about American doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan.
It's this kind of specificity that keeps Never Have I Ever from sliding into the realm of ordinary TV shows. There is a spark that this show has all to itself; like its main character, it is a prickly but deeply rewarding experience.
Never Have I Ever Season 2 drops on Netflix Thursday July 15.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Never Have I Ever, Netflix, Darren Barnet, Jaren Lewison, John McEnroe, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Mindy Kaling, Poorna Jagannathan, Ramona Young