When Never Have I Ever premiered last summer, in the midst of an exhausting and terrifying lockdown, it was a breath of fresh air. A fun teen romp with all of the comforting tropes we were likely familiar with, the perfect distraction from the horrors of real life. With strong leading performances from its young cast, it was hardly a surprise when it was promptly granted a second season and an opportunity to continue the will-they-won’t-they love triangle between Devi, Ben, and Paxton. The second season of Never Have I Ever doesn’t disappoint, bringing us more wild teen hijinks in addition to a more detailed exploration of Devi’s grief following the sudden loss of her beloved father.
When we last left Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) on Never Have I Ever, she had just helped scatter her father’s ashes into the ocean, then hooked up with friend/nemesis/love interest Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). So we’re all on Team Ben now, right? Another triumphant outing for the enemies to lovers trope. But not so fast. Because there’s still the little matter of Paxton (Darren Barnet), who is both very attractive and way into Devi as well. And since Devi’s a complete train wreck of a human being, she thinks: why not date them both and just hope that there are no consequences before the relationships come to their natural end when she and her mother move back to India in a few short weeks? (This will work exactly as well as it sounds.)
One thing that Never Have I Ever has going for it is that it somehow manages to keep Devi as a sympathetic protagonist. This shouldn’t sound that hard, except for the fact that Devi has always had a tendency to burn everything she touches to the ground, and it only gets worse in this season. We should low-key hate this girl: she can’t stop making terrible decisions out of grief and anger, and she constantly hurts all of her friends, family, and acquaintances in the process. But all of her chaos is rooted in a deep, overwhelming sense of pain, and it helps us to see her self-destructive behavior for what it is, and empathize with her. It’s hard not to have your heart break for Devi as she repeatedly plays back the last voicemail her father left her before dying, calling her his “perfect girl”: a soothing reminder of his love when she feels like anything but perfect.
Never Have I Ever also makes some brilliant pacing decisions that stop us from getting too frustrated by Devi’s mess. When she screws up, there’s inevitably a fallout, but they don’t belabor the point. We don’t have to sit through six episodes of Devi jerking Ben and Paxton around, trying to date them both at once in what is one of the most irritating high school sitcom tropes in television history. They rip the bandaid off fast instead.
If season one allowed us to get to know a little bit more about the actual human lurking beneath Ben Gross’s condescending, perpetually name-dropping veneer, Paxton Yoshida-Hall gets the same treatment in season 2. He’s presented throughout the entirety of the first season as little more than a dumb jock who has never been encouraged to excel at academics, but here we see him push back against that definition of himself. He wants to do better at school, but he doesn’t have the first clue how to go about it: he’s never been given the tools to do so.
Paxton’s not just frustrated at how difficult this all turned out to be. He’s genuinely hurt that no one in his life has ever expected anything more than intellectual mediocrity from him. This shows Paxton in a new light, and it’s a credit to both the writing and Barnet’s performance that he and Ben seem like equally good candidates for Devi’s affections. As potential boyfriend material, there’s not a whole lot of daylight between the two. (And are they both better than Devi deserves? You could make the argument!)
This is where the second season of Never Have I Ever can grow and expand upon the first. Ben and Paxton used to be just two archetypes Devi could use to live out her fantasy of a classic high school romance: the overachieving academic rival turned lover, and the unattainable, popular jock. But in the second season, they’ve evolved into flesh and blood characters in their own right.
Never Have I Ever still probably isn’t for everyone. It’s a slight teen romcom that leans into every single excess and trope of the genre. But there’s enough here of genuine value to make it worthwhile. It’s unusual for a show to focus on a female character with rage issues, especially a southeast Asian woman, so often depicted as soft-spoken and accommodating. We can and should have conversations about how helpful Mindy Kaling’s interpretation of the immigrant experience when it attempts to capture a universality that is actually hyperfocused on a particular brand of upper-class Indian immigrants. But putting that aside, Never Have I Ever has enough quirky allure to make it an undeniably charming diversion, and Ramakrishnan remains a star in the making.