Warning: contains spoilers for Never Have I Ever series one.
In a shareholder letter sent almost exactly one year to the release of Never Have I Ever season two, Netflix singled the Mindy Kaling-Lang Fisher teen show out for praise. Not praise as any human being being might put it, but acknowledgement of the half-hour comedy having “notched success” as a “key content vertical” – the words every showrunner wants to hear.
Within a month of release, announced Netflix, 40 million households worldwide (roughly equivalent to the population of California, where the series is set) had streamed Never Have I Ever’s first season, which followed Los Angeles teen Devi Vishwakumar navigating high school in the months after the very sudden, very public death of her father. The ratings received an undeniable boost from the pandemic keeping everybody at home, but this series deserves them. With sharp writing, a winning lead performance and a fresh cultural perspective on coming-of-age comedy (Devi is the US-born child of first generation Indian immigrants), the show had plenty going for it before Covid-19 gave it a shot in the arm.
Season two picks up where the first left off, both story and tone-wise, then takes Devi to some darker emotional places as she continues to deal with the loss of her dad. Her anger becomes a theme, as do her jealousy and insecurity following the arrival of new Indian student Aneesa (Megan Suri) at Sherman Oaks High. Devi’s motor-mouth sessions with therapist Dr Ryan (Niecy Nash) start to achieve the same ability to switch between light-hearted laughs and brutal sadness as Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Romantically, Devi is still caught between two boys – wealthy, brainy former-nemesis Ben (Jaren Lewison) and popular dreamboat slacker Paxton (Darren Barnet). She’s also still on thin ice with pals Fab and Eleanor (Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young). The teen characters are as brightly drawn as the show’s hot pink title card, and their scenes power along with fast-talking, self-aware, Clueless-style dialogue. They’re mostly familiar high school types – a robotics geek, a theatre nerd, a heartthrob – but types renewed by their distinct cultural, ethnic, sexual and gender identities. From a hurtful rumour to a prom queen campaign, season two plays out familiar scenarios in high school drama, but scenarios refreshed and refocused through the specific perspective of who is playing them out.
Season two gets the chance to explore some of those perspectives in more satisfying detail than last time. Fabiola’s identity crisis for instance, doesn’t end when she comes out as a lesbian, and Paxton won’t be the only one educated by a brief exploration of his Japanese family history. Inspired by co-creator Mindy Kaling adolescence, Devi’s Indian family is still rightly centre-stage, and it’s great to see both her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) given solid B-plots this time around.
Moorjani deals with a sexist workplace conflict that develops Kamala’s character while commenting on the dubious advice women are often given on ‘playing the game’. (Though it takes place in a university laboratory, Kamala finding herself the only woman, and the only woman of colour, in a nerdy male clique might just have parallels with Kaling’s background in US comedy writers’ rooms.) Satisfyingly for Kamala and Nalini, season two doesn’t give Devi a monopoly on romantic complications, either.
Really though, this is Devi’s show. Actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan remains the glittering disco ball at its centre. She’s a hugely charismatic lead who skips – like many of Mindy Kaling’s characters – effortlessly along the line between self-absorbed and endearing. Picked from over 15,000 candidates in an open audition, so the story goes, new face Ramakrishnan is a star with a natural talent for comedy.
She has good support from this cast, which includes fun smaller roles like desperate-to-be-on-the-right-side-of history teacher Mr Shapiro (Adam Shapiro), the aforementioned Dr Ryan, and Ben’s oblivious mother Vivian (Angela Kinsey). Ramakrishnan’s main co-star of course, is John McEnroe, who continues as the show’s unlikely narrator, peppering Devi’s story with anecdotes from his tennis career and telling us that he respectfully averts his gaze in her kissing scenes. It’s a pleasure too, for the series to indulge some of its more magical leanings with appearances by Heroes‘ Sendhil Ramamurphy as Devi’s dead father Mohan.
Season two of this high key, self-referential comedy is funnier, more confident, and delves deeper into its characters. It’s unafraid to give its lead unsympathetic behaviour, and manages to touch on serious matters without losing its comedic heart. We may have seen all the love triangle, prom and teen cliques on screen before, but we haven’t seen this particular iteration. It’s a fast-talking, brightly coloured, fizzy depiction of US teen life that updates the conventions of high school shows with a diverse cast and a modern comedic voice. If the second season can notch more success as a key content vertical for Netflix, this deserves to run and run.
Never Have I Ever season 2 lands on Netflix on Thursday July 15th.