Now in its third season, Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is becoming less and less a series about brown people and more like an American show that just happens to have brown people in it. The culturally specific observations that made it such a breath of aromatic air in seasons one and two have been replaced with the staleness of a generic high school comedy.
As breezy as always but noticeably skittish about unpacking the seriousness at its core, Never Have I Ever in season three concerns itself mainly with its teenage heroine Devi Vishwakumar’s sex life. But because the show had already wrapped up an engaging will-they-won’t-they narrative with the school jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida and also the nerdy Ben Gross in previous seasons, it finds itself at an unexpected crossroads this time around.
With nowhere to turn, the show decides to manufacture new obstacles for Devi to overcome. Across 10 short-ish episodes, it hurls her from one boy to the next, and has her repeat the same mistakes over and over again until you begin to wonder if Karan Johar himself is performing contortions behind-the-scenes to poke his nose into Devi’s private life. For instance, the script turns into both a Cupid and a contraceptive as it throws Devi and Paxton into intimate situations, only to stop them from having sex because it knows that it isn’t the season finale yet.
And as weird as this might sound, losing her virginity is Devi’s primary goal this season, as she emerges from the grief of losing her father, and the emotional toll of dating two boys simultaneously last season. Needless to say, she blows it with multiple people. For some reason, series creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher seem to working under the assumption that the show will face an existential threat if it’s not actively pushing Devi into a love triangle of some sort.
So, this season, it introduces another cute boy to the ensemble. He’s called Nirdesh, and he exists purely as plot buffer to distract Devi until she regains her senses. Nirdesh’s entire storyline comes across as a waste of time, and it’s made worse because it’s conflated with a parallel plot involving their mothers. Played by the wonderful Poorna Jagannathan, Nalini had always been my favourite character on the show, but the mildly worrying signs that had begun to poke their heads out of the sand in season two are now fully running wild. Sidelined with an aimless comedic track with Nirdesh’s irritating mom, Nalini is all but forgotten this season. It can’t help but feel like the show has run out of ideas for not just her, but every other character as well.
People that had nicely-rounded arcs previously now just exist in service of Devi. Her friends Eleanor and Fabiola have their own romances on the side, but since even they aren’t invested in them, how can the show expect the audience to be? Ben literally disappears for what seems like full episodes, while the show contrives increasingly unbelievable ways for Paxton to remain relevant. On one occasion, he randomly finds himself in the same room as Fabiola, and decides to give her some relationship advice. Later, he bonds with Ben at a hospital, but the show doesn’t mine this scenario for dramatically rich material. Instead, the sequence ends with Ben and Paxton having developed a cordial friendship, without ever telling you why and how.
This feeling of being utterly stumped by the show’s narrative choices happens way too often in season three. Not only does Devi go back and forth on her feelings for several people, so do other characters. After a point, you begin to cry wolf and wonder whom to believe at all. Heartbreaks are cured with hugs, and love strikes with the frequency of hunger pangs on a hot summer day. There are no real stakes.
This doesn’t mean that Never Have I Ever has to suddenly throw its characters into an Euphoria-adjacent universe to be ‘serious’. Nor does it need to be as forthright about intimacy as Netflix’s own Sex Education. It might be hard to believe, but all three shows are about people roughly the same age. And this only proves how ripe the high-school sandbox is for storytelling. But even though the characters in Never Have I Ever have grown up — some are actually over 18 now — the show’s sensibilities haven’t evolved with them. Which means that Devi and the gang can routinely find themselves in grown-up situations, only for the series to avert its eyes. It never did this before. And this can’t help but feel disappointing. It’s whitewashing on a thematic level.