Arts & LifeReviews

‘Never Have I Ever’ season two tries, but succumbs to mediocrity

Aug. 11, 2021, 9:20 p.m.

The viewers of Mindy Kaling’s second season of “Never Have I Ever” will be grateful for Netflix’s “next episode” feature: The little white bar that pops up in the bottom right corner and automatically transports you to the next episode just when you think you’re done for the day. It leaves no room for even the slightest possibility of turning off the TV and going to bed.

Without it, you might feel tempted to stop watching after the first few episodes, because the plot picks up only during the second half of the season.

The climax of season one sets the stage for season two: a new romance unexpectedly blossoms between Devi, the main character, and her nemesis Ben — occurring just as Paxton, her high school’s wildly popular heartthrob, runs over to Devi’s house to confess his love to her. Devi ultimately finds herself navigating an entirely new social dilemma: who will she choose, Ben or Paxton?

Much of the first half of season two focuses on this million-dollar question, providing some delicious fodder to the “Team Ben vs. Team Paxton” rivalry that has cropped up among fans of the show. Ben is smart and dependable, while Paxton is, well, hot — as seen in the many, many, many conversations and shots that focus on his body, to the point where it teeters dangerously toward objectification. Luckily, this topic is addressed in an episode that delves into his point of view and turns out to be one of the saving graces of the season.

At times, the dialogue tends to be unnatural, the script struggling to find its bearings. The first season is carried by the emotional complexity of Devi’s trauma after she witnesses her father’s death — but the second season fails to build on this momentum, instead choosing to hastily address it toward the end of a 10-episode package. The storytelling also tends to regress — a tendency for which the show benefits from Netflix’s next episode feature. The season picks up toward the end, becoming emotionally richer, but by then it’s already time to say goodbye.

Kaling’s second effort does succeed in bringing to the limelight issues ranging from toxic relationships to eating disorders to sexism in the workplace. Did it feel as though there was too much discussed in too little time? Yes, but skimming over these topics paves the way for deeper discussions, so let’s be optimistic.

Actresses Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani, who play the starring women, settle more comfortably into their roles this time around, while Darren Barnet brings surprising depth to Paxton’s character.

Devi, played by Ramakrishnan, stumbles from one bad decision to the next in her quest to become a normal teenager after trauma and attain the pinnacle of high school popularity. But, by the end of the season, she goes from devi to Devi — a three-dimensional character with several added layers of complexity.

But the greatest character development comes in Nalini, Devi’s mother, whose portrayal metamorphoses from that of a struggling single mother to a woman rediscovering love in a journey compounded by grief. She gets a chunk in the story, and you’ll discover that it cuts into the rough edges of her sassy Indian mother persona, making her softer and ultimately more vulnerable.

What this season gets wholly right is its Indianness. From dialogues interspersed with colorful Tamil to a departure from a stereotypical portrayal of Muslim Indians, it is Indian to its core. This feature is reflected in the settings, costumes, each character’s quirks (for instance, Devi’s grandmother’s constant complaints of her various ailments) and other little details. One favorite little detail: when Aneesa, the new Indian girl, brings a Ferrero Rocher pyramid to Devi’s house, John McEnroe exclaims, “For Indian people, that’s the Rolex of confection gift boxes!” — an uncontested fact.

But, for all its merits, it is strictly a one-time watch and leaves the viewer with a sense of promise unfulfilled. This season could have been more, so much more, but it fails to create a lasting impression, opting instead to fall into the rabbit hole of mediocrity.

Malavika is a high schooler writing as part of The Stanford Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact her at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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