Perhaps the most fascinating thing Never Have I Ever, created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, has done is explore a teenage Indian American girl simultaneously wanting to belong and wanting to be her own person. It's obviously a conflicting journey indicative of many modern adolescent experiences, especially for young people of color, which makes it so resonant. But there's always been something a little awkward about the way this series handles it sometimes.
On one end, Never Have I Ever has given us a protagonist, by way of Maitreyi Ramakrishnan's charismatic portrayal of Devi, who is flawed, angsty, and navigating real issues like grief. She's enlightened in that she has an inclusive group of close friends, joined the Model UN, and is unafraid to call out patriarchal standards -- even when her sometimes erratic behavior gives her the moniker "Crazy Devi" at school. And she's quick to protect those she loves, like her friends (Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez), from issues including abusive relationships and bullying.
And Ramakrishnan is delightful to watch as she embodies an outspoken young woman, and an unapologetic nerd, in flux. Last season, she lost her dad (Sendhil Ramamurthy), which sent her down an emotional spiral to the point where she began seeing a counselor (the great Niecy Nash) and narrowly avoided being uprooted from her new school back to her native India with her family. She also figured out how to steer, and articulate, her newfound sexual thirst for some of her male peers. So, she was, and remains, occasionally messy and all over the place socially and emotionally. But she is real.
Still, as much as Devi has proudly come into her own as a bicultural young person moving through the trauma of watching her father die in front of her as she redefines what it means to be cool in a school filled with popular cliques, whiteness is often centralized throughout her journey. Though it makes sense that tennis star John McEnroe would return as the narrator of her story in Season 2, it still is incomprehensible why he was ever fit to be the voice of a teenage South Asian girl's inner monologue in the first place.
The responsibility of accurately portraying a teen girl of color includes expressing her sexual urges, what it feels like to navigate the world looking like her, and her personal conflicts about being a girl who refuses to buckle to the mainstream but craves acceptance at the same time. Can an older white man like McEnroe authenticate that? Obviously not. His pithy one-liners may capture her voice, but not her experiences, like trying to convince "a stubborn Indian mother to change her mind." It's increasingly clear that he's merely reciting lines with little authenticity.
Then there is the matter of Devi's love interests, and those of her two besties, having very white or white-passing identities. Devi's main ones this season are Ben (Jaren Lewison), her white Jewish peer, and Paxton (Darren Barnet), who is half Japanese and half-white and, according to this Reddit, a dead ringer for Dave Franco. Thankfully, the writers this season attempt to include an, albeit undercooked, subplot about the latter learning more about his Asian identity from a relative who tells him about the Japanese internment camps, but it feels tacked on and unfulfilling. It's kind of understandable only because Never Have I Ever is about Devi, and less about her male crushes. Still, it's unsatisfying.
While it's awesome that this young brown girl gets to have not one but two men vying for her affection, and navigate the drama that inevitable ensues, it would be nice to see her interact with more non-white boys in a school that really does reflect the diversity of the real world.
Though, it could be that the writers want to show the reality of Devi navigating identities that have in many ways been predetermined, those she desires and others she's desperate to thwart, in a way that subverts expectations. The theme of Identity is already a major theme throughout the series and not just regarding its lead character. Some of the best moments this season that explore that are among other characters, including Devi's friends navigating their queer and romantic identities, while a frenemy (Megan Suri) nearly losing hers to gain acceptance from others.
In other more satisfying storylines, Devi's biologist cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who evaded an arranged marriage last season, contends with being marginalized at work by her white male peer (P.J. Byrne) who takes credit for her contributions. She goes to her teenage relative for advice on how to maneuver the issue after her colleague, who is also of Asian descent, suggested she "keep her head down and chin up."
Another plus this season is that the always wonderful Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Devi's mother Nilani, gets more to do other than play an at-times thankless maternal role. We see more of her at work, dealing with her own toxicity in a professional space, and even begin to date. Though Common's wooden performance as her love interest leaves the subplot a little cold, it's still nice to see the writers explore the character's humanity and sexuality.
Still, Never Have I Ever, now in its sophomore season, struggles with the same sort of identity crisis of its protagonist. It tries so hard to win over particularly white viewers who might say they don't identify with the main characters, but in doing so it sometimes dilutes what makes its heroine so great. Devi doesn't need to pander to a particular group of people or be a white-washed version of what a Brown girl should be. That, after all, is what makes her story so special.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
Never Have I Ever Season 2 premieres Thursday, July 15 on Netflix.