The first season of Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s teenage grief-com, ‘Never Have I Ever’, was not unlike a group dinner, family-style, at the Cheesecake Factory. Help yourself to heaping forkfuls of comforting fettuccine alfredo, the writers seemed to say, with a side of nachos, egg rolls and something called “Buffalo Blasts.”
Narrated for reasons that eventually made sense by tennis champion (and definite non-actor) John McEnroe, the Netflix show was redeemed by the judicious self-editing it underwent in the season’s second half, which focused on the elements that worked best: high school sophomore Devi’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) tense relationship with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) after the death of the girl’s father; Devi’s academic rivalry with her on-off love interest Ben (Jaren Lewison); and her low-key sociopathic willingness to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, no matter who gets hurt.
In other words, McEnroe could go. He was the plate of orange chicken on the table, invitingly tart but hardly necessary. So could the tray of avocado toast — Devi’s gorgeous grad-student cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) — who embodied the kind of flawless femininity Devi felt she could never live up to. Then there’s the wholly unappetising presence of the vegan Cobb salad, aka Gears Brosnan, a wisecracking robot that belonged to one of Devi’s best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez). Yes, this metaphor got old fast, and so did ‘Never Have I Ever’s’ pileup of quirks.
I looked forward to learning how Devi would navigate the love triangle she found herself in at the end of Season 1, with spiky-sweet Ben exciting her brain and James Franco-esque wincing hunk Paxton (Darren Barnet) exciting other areas. But I was even more curious about how Kaling and Fisher would revise the ungainly smorgasbord that was their show’s freshman year.
The answer is: more maximalism. Surprisingly, that’s not as bad as it sounds, with additions more suited to the show’s strengths. Devi’s occasionally conflicted feelings about her Indian American heritage flare up once more with the arrival of Aneesa (Megan Suri), another Desi girl at school, whom classmates immediately start calling “Devi 2.0.” Nalini gets a romantic sparring partner of her own in fellow dermatologist Chris (Common), who forces the widow to ask herself whether she’s ready to move on from her husband’s death. And the series’s Hollywood-adjacent, heightened-reality setting of Sherman Oaks, an affluent Los Angeles neighbourhood, gets a fun boost from Malcolm (Tyler Alvarez), a pretentious Disney Channel actor who decides to toy with Devi’s other BFF, theatre kid Eleanor (Ramona Young).
These storylines, 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-fuelled 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 centre who chases away her mom, her friends and most reliably anyone who wants to get close. New girl Aneesa ultimately doesn’t gain very much depth, but the episode in which Devi initially makes up a bunch of reasons not to be her friend, then realises her bond with another Indian American girl can give her a kind of affirmation her other friendships cannot, is a much more organic and emotionally grounded version of the Season 1 episode about a Hindu celebration called Ganesh Puja titled ‘Never Have I Ever ... Felt Super Indian’.
Devi’s love triangle, too, feels much more steadily drawn out here, with the grasping teen first two-timing the boys, then inevitably having the whole thing blow up in her face. There’s something strangely nourishing about her selfishness, as there was about Kaling’s titular character on ‘The Mindy Project’, a bubbly and boy-crazy flibbertigibbet who used up all the moral credits she accrued as a kick-ass doctor on being a gloriously vain egomaniac. Kaling’s fictional Mindy was a magpie who could hypnotise herself with her own bright, bejewelled outfits, but it was also undeniably subversive for the writer to turn the Asian American model minority myth on its head in such an aggressively ditsy fashion.
There’s a lot of Mindy in Devi, but a later plot that stems from Devi’s self-absorption bogs down the second half of the season with its suggestion that the show won’t let its protagonist mature, using her grief as an excuse. Mourning doesn’t have to be linear, but serialised comedies about adolescence pretty much require some sort of narrative progress. Mindy never grew much, and her show slid downhill after the first few seasons. It would be a disappointment for Devi to go down the same path.
Don’t miss it!
‘Never Have I Ever’ season two is now available to stream on Netflix.