Never Have I Ever
While the pilot mostly has to focus explicitly on Devi to set up its protagonist and conceit, episode two of Never Have I Ever settles into more of a typical sitcom structure, with a clear B plot involving Nalini and a C plot for Kamala. Both work well toward establishing these other characters in Devi’s life as fully realized and complex in their own right. The best teen dramas allow the parents to have lives outside of their children, deepening and expanding the story beyond the confines of high school. My So-Called Life is the gold standard in that department. And even though Never Have I Ever is a sitcom rather than a drama, it similarly already allows space for its adult characters to stand on their own and have their own emotional depth, much like My So-Called Life and other teen dramas like The O.C.
Nalini’s B plot unfolds quietly on the edges. It starts with a straightforward setup: She has to sell the moped taking up space in her garage. As with any sitcom conflict, there are plenty of jokes, like Nalini matter-of-factly telling a potential buyer on the phone that the bike doesn’t have any scratches and then immediately filling in a scratch with a Sharpie when she hangs up. But through well written, delicate flashbacks, we learn there’s a lot more emotionally attached to this moped. Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy continues to be a standout in the brief scenes he’s in) bought it to signal a new life in California, and while Nalini initially thought it was frivolous, she also shared a special moment with him on it after experiencing a miscarriage. For a B plot, this arc covers a lot of ground and does so much character work at once. It exists outside of Devi, a private memory of Nalini’s that we get a peek into but that she doesn’t share with the other characters. That makes it all the more intimate and powerful.
It also provides a sharp contrast to Devi’s A plot in tone. Grief and trauma are very tricky to explore in art because of how differently they manifest for different people. (Beyond that, even the way individuals experience grief can change unexpectedly for themselves.) Never Have I Ever allows for that nuance and nonlinearity. Nalini’s sadness here is quiet and private; Devi tends to be more explosive, her emotions usually expressed via anger. But she’s also an expert in denial. Instead of talking about her dead dad with her therapist, Devi deflects all the attention onto her predicament with Paxton.
She also isn’t quite sure how to handle the panic that arises in orchestra practice when the swell of music brings her back to her father’s death. The use of the music somewhat softens the severity of these flashbacks — Mohan’s death was so public and traumatizing, it’s no wonder that Devi would be triggered in this moment. But instead of dealing with it, she simply bails, refocusing her energy on her escapist activity of choice: sleeping with Paxton. Never Have I Ever is smart to take its time with Devi’s griefwork because it feels real. She doesn’t know how to deal with any of it, so she simply isn’t. The orchestra scene also finds humor in the awkward way people sometimes treat and talk about the grief of others.
The episode also dispenses more details for the other students in Devi’s life. Paxton gets the “there’s more to the popular guy than meets the eye” treatment — a teen-show trope I genuinely love. We meet his sister, Rebecca, when Devi accidentally encounters her in the house, and while his relationship with his sister and his tendency to be overly protective of her is the catalyst for a deeper, more complicated look at Paxton, Rebecca also is a fully realized character who isn’t merely here for the sake of developing Paxton. She has an immediate rapport with Devi.
Devi also deflects a lot of her rage toward her rivalry with Ben Gross. When Ben takes a jab at Devi’s mustache, she expertly fires back with a dig at him for not being able to grow one. Their dynamic so far is a fun part of the show; they’re formidable adversaries who both seem to be working through deeper things when it comes to their need for competition. Ben isn’t a villain so much as a foil to Devi.
Devi’s friends don’t initially fall for the story she spins about Paxton wanting to get to know her, but she continues to lie to them about it, doubling down on that lie at the end of the episode when she lets them believe they had sex. (Paxton ultimately decides he doesn’t want to go through with it now that Devi has crossed some sort of invisible line in his life by getting to know him too personally.) That sets up some dramatic stakes moving forward. There’s also a wonderful setup for Fab’s arc in the form of a nod toward her attraction to girls. I do love how Devi, Fab, and Eleanor’s nerdiness and outsider status at school has been written so far, specific and layered rather than simply writing into stereotypes. Fab’s closeness with the school faculty is a funny recurring joke, as is Eleanor’s drama-club intensity (she feels so bad about lying to Devi that she stays up all night editing a friendship photo montage set to “All of Me,” by John Legend). Devi, Fab, and Eleanor are inexperienced when it comes to sex but far from repressed — an important distinction, and one that allows them to be more than just sexless dorks. The gag of them turning their study session into a sex-position study session is funny and unexpected.
Meanwhile, in the C plot, those hints from the pilot that Kamala has hesitations about an arranged marriage pay off in the form of a secret boyfriend. Kamala tries to explain to Steve that she can’t be with him anymore, and that even though they’ve been together for three months, her family doesn’t know about him. Dating in the Western sense of the word isn’t really a concept in traditional Indian families, and the rift between Steve and Kamala is well written and convincing. Similarly, there’s humor to the way Nalini tries to coach Kamala through her video call with her potential future in-laws (“be more interesting,” she scrawls on a legal pad), but there’s also more than just that to the scene. Nalini is an expert at switching between her American life and the normalized roles from her Indian culture, helping Kamala sell the lie. Kamala is a successful and ambitious woman, but Nalini wants her to merely assure the potential in-laws that she can cook.
Kamala’s frustrations come to a head during taco night (I love the specificity of this taco night — it looks real and familiar!), when Nalini and Devi complain that the lemonade is too sour. Underneath her outburst lies her exasperation with performing certain duties for her family’s sake. Kamala, Devi, and Nalini all grapple with their complicated emotions in solitary silos in this episode, holding a lot in. Their feelings are getting pressure-cooked.