Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ Season 2 Returns to the Drama and Hilarity of Teen Life

There will never be a generation that finds it easy to endure high school. It doesn’t matter how much more diverse American society becomes, being a teenager is the eternal crucible of growing up. Season two of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” continues to define how YA material should be treated going into the future. It has the colorful romanticism of teenage stories, with plenty of mush and comedy to spare. But this show about the life of an Indian-American teenager in California’s San Fernando Valley also has the capacity to make us cringe, but in all the right ways. Once again the show intelligently combines its themes of growing up within a sector of America’s canvas of communities with all the dumb choices and embarrassments of adolescence.

15-year-old Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) begins the season with a classic dilemma: Choosing between two guys. Her choices remain upper class and brainy Ben (Jaren Lewison) and handsome swim team champ Paxton (Darren Barnet). They both have their pluses and minuses, so to the shock of her friends, Devi decides to just date them both. Of course, both guys will be completely unaware of this decision. On the home front mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is still processing the death of her husband and is even considering moving the family back to India to have a firmer support system. This causes even more anxiety in Devi when it comes to her romantic dilemma. Meanwhile, her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) juggles big opportunities at a laboratory where she can flex her scientific muscles, and a long-distance arranged marriage conversation with an equally skilled Prashant (Rushi Kota), who plans to visit the U.S. soon to see her and maybe finally pop the big question. 

Creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher wisely keep what makes “Never Have I Ever” good. It comes with all the eye-rolling drama we expect in a teenage show, coupled with real dilemmas and sobering honesty. The writing has a sharp honesty about sex and also the immigrant experience. Nalini still monitors Devi’s emerging hormones, especially after catching her kissing a guy last season. But in private Devi cares little for traditionalism in the sense of not being sexually curious and hooks up with Paxton, then dates him and Ben. We are in on it all with Devi, so one senses big grins in the audience when Devi tutors Paxton at her house and Nalini demands they sit farther apart. But of course, when grandma sees Paxton and notices he’s half-white she looks so happy. These are cultural behavior patterns familiar to many viewers from an Asian or Middle Eastern home, but they rarely get addressed in a teen dramedy. Nalini’s own relatives try to set her up with an older Indian man who just has deep pockets going for him, especially since he can’t hold a conversation without falling asleep. Kamala has to deal with dumb sexism at the lab where she works and the inability of having a normal dinner with Prashant, since his are also present and ask how many children she plans to have.

But the themes of Indian American life run like a strong undercurrent beneath the more universal teenage roller coaster material. This is a show where the chiseled jock isn’t always a hero. When Paxton invites Devi over for a “date” it turns out his gross buddies are there too, because “they always leave when it’s time to hook up.” But he does get his act together when Devi makes it clear she wants a real relationship. But Ben is also in a relationship with Devi and this all leads to a great party scene where both guys show up at the same time, creating a panic-inducing crisis that culminates in a car accident. And Devi isn’t let off the hook, later when she tutors Paxton and confesses she still has feelings for him, he makes the reasonable point of looking like a fool if he goes back to the girl who two-timed him. Devi’s circle of friends also goes through their own trials and tribulations. Eleanor (Ramona Young) has a passion for acting but this also leads her to date a Disney Channel star who just transferred to the school, Malcom (Tyler Alvarez). He is all charm but it’s a façade for a selfish personality. Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) still struggles with having 0 connection to pop culture and is now president of the robotics team. She also comes out of the closet but learns that you don’t need to then strive to become an idealized queer persona to fit in. 

If there is a lesson in this season of “Never Have I Ever” it’s that expectations and perceptions tend to crash against the rocks of real life. Kamala gets to work in the lab of a famous scientist, but she rarely makes contact with him. Instead she’s stuck with his sexist acolyte. Devi might find it easier to date two guys at the same time, but when dealing with relationships, we always need to be aware that the other person has feelings too. If they’re not into an open arrangement, chances are if they find out they were duped into one will lead to some lingering resentment. While Nalini may be staunchly traditionalist in many of her views, she learns a hard lesson when the family she felt would support her in India is keen to marrying her off ASAP to a new prospect. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the lessons we first begin learning as teenagers tend to keep appearing again and again as adults, the question is how we learn and grow through them. It’s not all harsh. Kamala might just ditch Prashant’s nosy family for the school teacher who asks her to a party, and Devi does eventually seem to settle on one of her choices, in a rather sweet scene during a homecoming dance. After the end credits, we want to keep seeing how Devi makes it out of high school, because we all had to find a way to survive it ourselves.

Never Have I Ever” season two begins streaming July 15 on Netflix.