Drawing from emotional highs and lows and the blissful ignorance of your garden-variety adolescent, Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” doesn’t need the stratospheric stakes or visual-effects wizardry of a fantasy epic or space opera to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Season 3 of Mindy Kaling’s pseudo-autobiographical series cleverly riffs off of the teen dramedy formula by subverting television’s most enduring coming-of-age tropes.
The core cast
Instead of your typical white, manic pixie dream girl, the leading lady is Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian American overachieving teen whose impulsive and hormone-fueled exploits are as infuriating and cringe-worthy as they are strikingly reminiscent of many of our own adolescence.
Ramakrishnan credits the writers for weaving together a compelling emotional arc that serves as an authentic undercurrent for the questionable decisions of her character, who would merely function as a plot device personifying Murphy’s law without it.
“Within the first 15 minutes, we show you that she’s gone through this incredible loss of her father, and then we go through the rest of the season watching her do absolutely heinous things,” Ramakrishnan tells NextShark. “This is a kid who’s just really, really hurting deeply.”
Throughout the previous two seasons, Devi navigates the complex social dynamics of high school while stumbling into a love triangle with her know-it-all and totally loaded academic rival Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) and the Sherman Oaks’ resident hunk-slash-swim team captain Paxton Hill-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).
While Ben and Paxton may initially come off as one-note caricatures, the show excels in deconstructing the “dumb jock” and “pretentous rich kid” cliches. Lewison found that vulnerability is the secret ingredient to fully shattering the stereotypes the characters embody.
“I think that it’s really fun, especially as an actor to be able to have that opportunity to make a character break out of the mold and be malleable in a certain sense,” says Lewison. “I think for a lot of it comes from vulnerability, where you pull back some of those layers and underneath a lot of their stereotypical personas you find so much under them. I feel like that’s really relatable.”
In separate episodes dedicated to fleshing out the two primary players in Devi’s love life, Ben’s abandonment issues and detached disposition are revealed to stem from a lonely home life, while Paxton’s struggles with academic anxiety are showcased when he is forced to focus on his academics after an accident abruptly ends his swimming career.
Barnet reveals that his character’s struggles with overcoming labels was an issue he also faced in his personal life “that was easy to channel with [his portrayal of] Paxton.”
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Supporting — not side — characters
Even beyond the three characters who drive the show’s central conflict, each member of the supporting cast has their own individual arc that not only enhances the show’s worldbuilding but also offers meaningful glimpses into diverse avenues of the teenage experience.
“I think it’s easy to find space fillers per se in certain shows. I don’t feel like you find that much in this show” Barnett says. “Every character that may seem irrelevant has some type of arc at some point or they influence something at some point.”
Devi’s pair of best friends, Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), in particular, receive a considerable amount of development throughout the first two seasons.
Fabiola’s side plot captures the growing pains of an LGBTQ-plus teen coming to terms with their suppressed emotions, which escalates into a series of outbursts which she ultimately grows from.
“[Fabiola] doesn’t feel like she fits into a specific mold,” says Rodriguez. “I feel like she’s learning how to kind of put herself first and listen to how she feels.”
Eleanor, on the other hand, confronts strained relationships with an absent mother and her toxic first boyfriend.
“For Eleanor, I think something that she grows through is like handling her first really serious relationship and the ups and downs of really falling in love, I think,” says Young.
Even newcomers like the other brown girl at Sherman Oaks, the subversively sporty Aneesa Qureshi (Megan Suri), are poised for further development. Referencing the iconic onion scene from “Shrek,” Suri expresses excitement for the layers to Aneesa’s character that audiences will explore further down the line.
“I like to describe her as like an onion with a bunch of layers and I really do think that with each season, we’ll progressively peel back more layers inside to her that we haven’t originally seen, so I’m excited for audiences to figure some to learn something new about Aneesa,” says Suri.
“Never Have I Ever” is particularly notable for exploring coming-of-age issues from a South Asian perspective, which is seldomly represented in Western media as a whole, let alone teen dramas. For instance, the dynamic between Davi and her mother Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan) illustrates conflict stirred by cultural and generational gaps that Asian parents and their children regularly face that Jagannathan herself resonates with on a personal level.
“Nalini has to change how she parents because the chasm between [her and Davi] is really growing and that is very personal for me because you have to evolve as a parent to be present for your child,” says Jagannathan. “I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing my son and I had to change to grow closer to him. I couldn’t parent the way I used to parent and it had to be a much more balanced relationship.”
Another character who sheds light on the South Asian experience is Davi’s older cousin, Kamala Nandiwadal (Richa Moorjani), a PhD student at CalTech who navigates a misogynistic workplace environment and the constraints of arranged marriages. While she and many other characters throughout the series deal with weighty themes, Moorjani praises the show’s effective use of comedy to communicate them in a way that engages and connects with audiences.
“Our show does such an incredible job of shining a light on these very real cultural themes and issues through comedy, which I think is such a powerful and effective way of raising awareness about these things,” Moorjani says. “When you’re spoon-fed things, whether it’s through drama, or not through comedy, it can be hard to digest and not as effective. So I think that because it’s through comedy, that’s what makes [“Never Have I Ever”] so much more enjoyable and relatable, [and] also eye-opening.Season 3 of “Never Have I Ever” will be released on Netflix on Aug. 12.