When was the last time you found yourself squarely on the side of the main protagonist? When they fuck up, you understand, when they are wronged, you curl your toes, when they succeed, you cheer, when they kiss, you coo, when they are angry, you count down from 10 hoping you can, across the vortex of the internet and the fact-fiction binary, calm them down.
Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) has that effect. Devi’s life, a high school kid, has that effect. She’s so compelling in her angst, desperation, jealousy, pain, and apologies, you can’t help but see the world by her side, even if you are not able to see it from her perspective. Because her perspective is messy. Like her therapist Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) notes, she feels a lot, and it’s just easier to deal with the emotional aftermath than mine in the wreckage for logic behind each of her decisions.
In the first season, she lost her father, endured a traumatic paralysis as an effect, and in trying to resurrect her social life was constantly confronted with the fact that she is still healing, and perhaps always will. The second season continues that conversation, with her therapist wondering if she might be slightly depressed. This point of depression is not taken further, because the therapy sessions seem enough, narratively at least, to allow for such a diagnosis to go un-acted on.
Season 2 of Never Have I Ever begins with her disastrous decision to date two boys — the high school swimmer, Paxton (Darren Barnet), and her academic nemesis, Ben (Jaren Lewison). She rationalizes it thus: “Ben gets my super brainy side, and Paxton gets my mega horny side.” Ben sends “Good morning” texts with a sunshine emoji and with a face that has eyes which pop hearts. Paxton sends, “Morning”. It doesn’t end well. Add to this a new entrant to the high school, Aneesa, (Megan Suri), the “cool Indian”, which makes Devi realize that she is invisible in high school not because everyone is a racist, but because she just isn’t cool.
This season delves into Devi’s emotional vacillations between the two boys on two ends of the social spectrum — the nerd, the jock. Then, there is the feeling of losing her mojo to Aneesa. But by episode 6 most of this mess is mopped up, and John McEnroe’s voice-overs (with a guest voice-over by Gigi Hadid) align with your emotional wavelength enough to not mind its arbitrary quality. The remaining 4 episodes, we just hold Devi’s hands hoping she doesn’t “pull another Devi”. Even if she kills, we’ll nod our heads to her alibi. But we don’t want blood on her hands.
It must be noted though, that the criticism many of us had about the first season vis-a-vis Indian representation holds, even more so here. India is still seen as the “other”. In a brief interlude, we have Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) visit Chennai. The frames suddenly dull, its colours arbitrarily pulled back or exacerbated, making the heat infested Chennai look dingy, dusty, and more yellow than I have ever seen it. The pronunciations stick out. No Tamilian worth their salt, in Chennai of all places, pronounces ‘paruppu’, or even the word ‘Tamil’, like that. In the subtitles ma gets italicized, paruppu gets italicized and the gaze is gin-clear. The endearing kannas and kazhudais feel like exclamation marks in a sentence that just wanted more words.
This needed actors drunk in the weight of their characters, and Poorna Jagannathan could mispronounce her way through the Tamil dictionary and it wouldn’t make a dent on our feelings for Nalini. She is a widow. In the first season, she is holding on tight to her husband (Sendhil Ramamurthy) who is driving a Moped across the wind-swept roads overlooking the glittering California coast. She is afraid, and he calms her, “There is nothing to worry about, my love.” They washed away his ashes on the shore in the last episode of the first season. This season has her wondering what that moment is, when it is respectful — to the dead, to the living — to move on. Or is widow, a term once gotten, a life-time subscription?
Richa Moorjani as Kamala, Devi’s cousin who stays with them while performing cutting edge research in a lab with geeks who mistake sexism for social awkwardness, gets the short end of the stick with her dialogues, making sure the last syllable of each word is not just pronounced but pronounced. It is grating to the ears, as much as it is to the intention of the show. For that matter, even some of Devi’s lines have a studied quality, which when you hear, you don’t see her as a character, as much as imagine a writer on a desk writing that line, smirking with success. Success because the lines are witty, but the translation isn’t as effective.
This performative aspect seeps into the storytelling in other ways. The show is least compelling when a character does something and notes what and how much their actions mean for their community — for women in STEM, for queers, for South Asians. A didactic quality slurps at the marrow of the emotional core, which is otherwise rich with momentum.
Each of Devi’s best friends Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez), and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) are given full-bodied arcs. Aneesa, the new entrant, however, isn’t given much more than a postscript in the episodes she appears in, advising us to seek help if we have an eating disorder. Even so, as each half-healing, half-healed character rattles towards the High School Dance in the final episode, you wish for each of them only the best. And when was the last time that happened?