Same nerds, new drama: Thoughts on Never Have I Ever (season 3)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

You have likely often heard middle-aged people, or those simply disappointed about the state of their lives, sigh and utter the immortal words “High school really is the best time of your life”.

For the jocks and popular kids maybe but for those of us bullied to within an inch of our mainstream-defying lives? Yeah, not so much.

One person who might’ve once agreed wholeheartedly with the more sober second sentiment, and not the nostalgia heightened first one, is Never Have I Ever‘s protagonist and gorgeously flawed beating heart, Devi Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) who back in season 1 of this deliciously funny and cleverly insightful show was very much the outsider along with besties Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) and Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez).

Way back then in the more innocent days of 2020, Devi was in the hellhole midst of dealing with the sudden loss of her beloved dad Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) and trying hard to find a way to fit in to a world more predisposed to the popular kids than anyone actually committed to learning something.

In the first two seasons, we saw Devi doing her best to have her high school cake and eat it too, keeping up her grades while trying to have some sort of romantic life, executed with such bull-in-a-china-shop poor judgement – she’s a teenager, cut her some slack – that she ended up with two boyfriends in super cool Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and ultra nerdy but handsome Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), then none and then?

Well, then she ended up back with Paxton at the end of season 2, a development which placed Devi at the pinnacle of high school popularity, if not for herself since the cool girls made it clear she was not one of them (thank good; who want to be that narcissistically vapid? Even if Devi wanted to It’s doubtful she could pull it off because she has way too much substance) but simply because anyone in Paxton’s orbit is automatically top of the social pile.

It’s as Devi is sitting pretty on the summit of social popularity, admittedly to the amazement of all who view her entering the high school arm-in-arm with Paxton after the Summer break, that season 3 kicks off.

Devi, of course, think all her problems have been solved, but life, and high school are never that easy, and just as she is exulting in finally have the holy double of grades and a guy, she gets slut shamed by the cool girls who can’t conceive how someone like her could be with someone like Paxton.

Sure, it’s a ridiculously limited view of humanity but did we expect anything else from people who think social worth is drawn solely from fast fashion, botox and lemon-faced putdowns of those you deem lesser than?

Sent into a very Devi-like emotional tailspin by the vapid trio, Devi also has to grapple with a troll who turns out how not be so troll-ish after all (“Never Have I Ever … had my own troll”), whether she and Paxton are truly compatible (“Never Have I Ever …had a valentine”) and if she and Paxton have what it takes to last the distance.

This being a ten-episode season, you can all but guarantee things will get rocky for Devi and so they do, with Ben spinning back into her orbit in ways that surprise her and him (“Never Have I Ever …lived the dream”), a new hot Indian guy Nirdesh “Des” (Anirudh Pisharody) coming into her life in the form of mum Nalini’s (Poorna Jagannathan) BFF New Ager Rhyah (Sarayu Blue) and the big question being answered (possibly) of when she will lose her virginity.

That’s a LOT and that’s just at high school with home life being just as busy with her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) and grandmother Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty) having dramas of their own, all tinged with some nice touches of OTT humour, and Devi having to work out whether she wants to stick around during senior year when a really cool offer comes her way.

The genius of Never Have I Ever is that even though a huge amount is happening, both to Devi and friends like Eleanor (who finds unexpected love with Trent, played by Benjamin Norris, who gets way more to do in this season and nails it to a fulsomely heartwarming degree), Fabiola (who’s down a girlfriend then gets another) and Aneesa, played by Megan Suri, who has a lot to figure out, almost but not quite rivaling Devi in the process, you never feel like the storylines are too crowded.

That’s likely got to do with the fact that even though big things are happening all the time to lots of people, Never Have I Ever is happy to let it all play out with a beguiling mix of snappy dialogue, some comedically surreal touches and characters who, even when they’re acting a little odd or unlikeable, still have a huge amount of appealing humanity to them.

Take Devi, and honestly lots of guys do this season to her unending but entirely pleasurable surprise, who makes a ton of mistakes over the course of the season but who is always presented as just another flawed human being, an inexperienced teenage one at that so be kind, trying to figure out life and not make a hash of it.

She is, at heart, a good person, and while that doesn’t guarantee she will get everything right and have things always go her way, she at least has her heart in the right place, a through-line of characterisation that Never Have I Ever consistently brings to (almost) all its characters.

No one, well, almost no one is completely evil or irredeemably flawed and Never Have I Ever is always to underscore the fact that redemption and reconciliation are possible, and that even though poor decisions are never consequence-free, they can be recovered from.

In other words, life is not a series of bloodied dead ends; it is, in fact, all about flawed people doing their best to make life a great place to be and what we see in Never Have I Ever is essentially Devi and her friends on training wheels, all figuring out what works, what doesn’t and how to heal and forgive things when they go south.

It’s all done with a huge amount of heart, a lot of empathetic humanity, rich characterisation bolstered by uniformly solid performances with Ramakrishnan far and away the star performer, bringing a mix of vulnerability, devil-may-careness and earnest searching to the role, and storylines that pack in a lot without ever feeling like they’re too much.

With season three ending on a compelling, cliffhanger-lite note, and a fourth and final season already in the bag for a likely 2023 premiere, Never Have I Ever is sitting pretty as a coming-of-age show that has something to say (not least the fact that it’s sexual and cultural diversity is a breath of fresh air), wonderful people to say it and a sensibility that treats humanity as something we learn to do and not something we’re born with, a sage lesson that infuses the series with a warm and welcoming vibe that also serves up the kinds of laughs we all need in our pandemic-battered present.

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