Dream Teens: Never Have I Ever returns for a smarter, funnier, sexier season 2
"This nerd is playing doubles like a pro!" John McEnroe is impressed. No, he's not watching Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) play tennis, but rather, the narrator is watching her host a house party. (Nobody tell her mom!) Currently, Devi's mother's house is filled with her lovably eccentric besties Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), a frankly impressive chunk of her high school for a nerd, and most importantly, both of her boyfriends. Yes, you read that last part correctly.
After spending most of Never Have I Ever's first season lusting over Paxton Hall-Yoshida's (Darren Barnet) abs, you'll recall that Devi ended the season in a front-seat lip-lock with her former nemesis, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). Now, as the addictive comedy prepares to return for its second season this Thursday, it's putting its own twist on the love triangle trope. And in typical Devi fashion, it's a messy one: She decides to date them both. "She's still going to pull some crazy high jinks," says co-creator Lang Fisher, who teases that even the writers' room is split on which guy Devi should choose.
Hey, it's not like it's an easy choice! Paxton is hot, but Ben is smart. Ben and Devi have a lot in common, but Paxton is really hot. As Devi says in the season 2 trailer, "Ben gets my super-brainy side. Paxton gets my mega-horny side." So, with an impending move to India, Devi figures now is the time to experience all that an American school has to offer — both the brains and the brawn. And according to McEnroe, it seems to be working. At least for now. "Darren [Barnet] has said that season 2 is like season 1 but on fire," says Lewison. "It's exploding with so much more electricity."
That's great news for a fandom that has waited more than a year for the show's return. The first season of Never Have I Ever premiered on April 27, 2020 and introduced the world to Devi, Ramakrishnan's hot-headed Indian American high schooler struggling to balance two cultures, all the while coping with the sudden death of her father and, more than anything, trying to have a sexy high school experience. Within its first 28 days of streaming on Netflix, 40 million households watched the show, according to Netflix's Head of Global TV Bela Bajaria. Seventy percent of that audience was outside of the U.S., gaining massive popularity in countries such as India, Brazil, France, and Canada. "When it dropped, I was in awe," says Barnet. "[The international success] was so great, especially in India, because you take that risk of making a show about an Indian American teenager and not telling it right and having it be offensive or not true."
As the world faced the reality of quarantine, Never Have I Ever provided laughter when it was needed the most. For 10 episodes, viewers got to escape to a world where Paxton's ripped bod and McEnroe attempting teen slang could solve just about anything. "There's obviously heavy stuff, but it's fun and it has a very pop tone, and I think that was very welcome at that time," says co-creator Mindy Kaling. "It was one of the most gratifying feelings to have it come out during that kind of dark time where there was so much uncertainty."
Its success also proved the power of putting diverse stories on television. "Clearly, you can tell stories about underrepresented groups for a large audience," Bajaria says, with Lewison adding, "No matter how old you are, where you're from, or what your complex identity might be, there's something relatable in our show that you can really enjoy in a fun or a meaningful way. That's something that our show is unique in right now."
Even putting Devi in the middle of a love triangle feels revolutionary. "How this show creates new narratives is quite stunning, especially for a woman of color," Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Devi's scrupulous mom Nalini, says. "What it means for a brown girl to navigate two boyfriends, it's all brand new!"
And it all started with Kaling's books. A couple years ago, Netflix executives reached out to Kaling to see if she wanted to make an autobiographical series based on her life. "I wasn't quite in the place creatively where I felt I could mine my exact childhood in a comedic way," says Kaling. "I also didn't want to do something set in the '80s or '90s. I wanted to do something about kids now." For that, Kaling turned to Lang Fisher, whom she'd worked with on The Mindy Project, and together, they decided that sometimes fiction is better than reality. (After all, how many autobiographical series end up giving us juicy love triangles?!)
"We both realized that while we were not cool high schoolers, we weren't shy," says Fisher. "We were like, 'Let's make a show about losers, but they all have these very big, specific personalities.' A lot of times the trope of the teenage girl in YA shows is that they're invisible and nobody notices them. We didn't want Devi to be that. We wanted her to be someone that everyone knows, but maybe for the wrong reasons."
More often than not, those wrong reasons have everything to do with Devi's short temper, like that time she threw her textbook through her bedroom window in a fit of rage. (There's a reason McEnroe is her narrator.) "I'm a very impatient person and I really relate to people who have short tempers," says Kaling. "You often don't see it with women on TV, and you definitely don't see it with young women and then especially not with young Asian women. It goes against the model minority myth that we're supposed to toe the line and be demure and ladylike. I love that about Devi. She is someone who approaches her father's death as this great injustice that she's angry about. It's also funnier." As Lang puts it, "We sort of imagined her as Danny McBride as a teenage Indian American girl."
That somewhat disturbing visual eventually led them to Ramakrishnan, now 19. The Canadian actress was still in high school at the time and had started acting "just as something to do after school." As Ramakrishnan tells it, "I didn't want to go home right away and sports is definitely off the table for me." Then one day, her best friend sent her a tweet, much in the way a friend might send you a funny meme or the latest shirtless picture of Chris Evans. Only this was a tweet from Mindy Kaling, announcing casting for her new series. And Ramakrishnan, who'd previously dreamed of becoming an animator, submitted a tape.
"We wanted somebody who was super authentic," says Fisher. "We didn't want someone who had been polished by Hollywood and had the patina of a Disney star. When we brought Maitreyi to L.A., she was so funny in the room. I think she dabbed three times."
Ramakrishnan is quick to correct that last point. "I think Lang overexaggerated how many times I dabbed. I did it ironically!" On Zoom, Ramakrishnan is sitting in her room at home in Canada, the same home where she found out she landed the role two years ago, only you'd never know it because her laptop is getting fixed and her phone won't let her turn on video. So for this chat, she's just "Zoom User," and yet, even behind a black box, she exudes the same laidback star quality that undoubtedly landed her the part. She's low-key but energetic, the type of person you want to call you her "homie." (And there's a good chance she will.) "At the time I had the perfect sweet spot of being two years older than Devi to look back and know the cringey moments, but then still not too far off from Devi because I still was living through my cringey moments," she says. "Then I amplified her hot-headedness and I just went for it."
If anything screams Devi, it's just going for it, much in the way the sophomore walked up to Paxton in season 1 and said, "I was wondering if you would ever consider having sex with me?" You can feel Ramakrishnan shaking her head at the memory. "Oh Devi, you weird, weird child," she says. "We love her." And she's right. We do love her. Even when she makes dumb decisions, and season 2 will give her plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Joining the fun this year is Common, who, like many, was a big fan of season 1. "It makes you feel good," Common says of his experience binging the show. "I was really impacted by how good I felt watching it. I needed that in my life, and I need it now in my life." Common will play Dr. Chris Jackson, a very dapper dermatologist who's also Nalini's nemesis (much in the way Ben was Devi's nemesis ... you see where this is going). And let's just say Devi is not a fan of her mother even thinking of flirting with another man. "Devi feels like it's a betrayal," Fisher says.
But Dr. Jackson and his high-end skin products aren't not the only thing raising Devi's blood pressure. There's also Aneesa (Megan Suri), the new girl at school who throws Devi off her game when she proves it is possible to be both Indian and popular. "Aneesa's very athletic. She is charming. She's easy-going. Everyone loves her. She also happens to be Muslim," says Fisher. "She has the confidence and lack of awkward jealousy that drives Devi to be a maniac." In other words, someone better hide Devi's textbooks.
As for the returning faces, Fabiola will explore her relationship with Eve (Christina Kartchner), Eleanor will land a new love interest, and we'll follow Kamala (Richa Moorjani) to her lab, where she'll hit a few career road blocks. As for Paxton, he's getting the Ben treatment this season. Sorry, that was confusing: Paxton's not suddenly joining the Model UN, he's just getting a standalone episode with his own narrator, much like Ben did in season 1. "It was really fun to show more depth to Paxton beyond his abdominal muscles," Barnet says. Though, to clarify, the abdominal muscles are still prominently featured.
"I feel like we stayed true to season 1," Ramakrishnan says. "It's a proper transition. I do think season 2 is better than season 1. I like to say, 'We got no sophomore slump here!'"
For Devi, it will be a season of new experiences, pros and cons lists, and likely, a few mistakes, which brings us back to her impressive game of doubles. Standing in her house in an early episode of the new season, Devi's panicking. She had everything set up for Paxton to play flip cup in the garage while Ben enjoyed some wine tasting in the living room. But when Paxton follows his perma-chill bro Trent (Benjamin Norris) to the living room — in one of the show's biggest twists, Trent's dad is a sommelier — Devi's entire world is at risk of crumbling.
Let's just hope she really is as good at doubles as McEnroe seems to think she is.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.
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