For two seasons, Netflix’s young adult dramedy Never Have I Ever commanded our attention with a delightful coming-of-age story that balanced a wry sense of humor with near-constant horniness, the weight of familial expectations, and the lingering pain of grief. Led by a revelatory Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and memorably narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe, the show was arguably one of the best on Netflix for those seasons. But while the third outing certainly has its moments, it also uncovers and lays bare some of the show’s biggest flaws.
After two seasons spent trying to win the affection of the hottest and most popular boy in school, Devi (Ramakrishnan) has done what was once thought impossible and is dating Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). The Summer Roberts to her Seth Cohen, he manned up in the Season 2 finale and admitted he liked Devi enough to want to date her and be with her in public even after she embarrassed him by two-timing him with Ben (Jaren Lewison). Unfortunately for them both, their pairing does not cure Devi of her anxieties. In the new season, she finds herself obsessing over new and different things now that they’re together, like making sure Paxton doesn’t break up with her if she doesn’t sleep with him or worrying that she’s not good enough for him when an old friend and former flame returns to his life. While Devi’s actions and reactions are in character, her anxiety begins to manifest deeper issues of mistrust and self-loathing, ultimately leading to the swift end of her relationship with Paxton. At the end of Episode 3, he tells her that although he really likes her, he can’t be in a relationship with her until she likes herself.
Ordinarily, I’d be annoyed that a show spent 20 episodes building up to a relationship only to have it end after three, but no one really expected them to be endgame, and this is hardly the biggest issue “Never Have I Ever” faces this season anyway. Immediately after the breakup, the series employs the use of a time jump so it can bypass Devi’s emotional pain and subsequent healing. We see her crying during a montage meant to show the passage of time, but as McEnroe wrly notes, Southern California doesn’t have seasons, so it’s mostly a montage of Devi in different outfits and different states of distress. Admittedly, it’s a pretty funny, if simple joke. But by choosing to take this type of storytelling shortcut, the show shortchanges its protagonist by eliminating the possibility of depicting any growth that might have occurred as a result of Paxton’s words.
Based on her actions, Devi struggles with self-worth and fitting in. She doesn’t see what Paxton sees in her, frequently mentioning that she is not good enough for him and that they don’t make any sense together. One would hope that once he ends things with her and points out that she doesn’t seem to like herself all that much that Devi would take time to process this observation and work through her reaction to it in her regular sessions with her therapist (Niecy Nash). And it’s possible that she does do this during the time covered in the montage, but we don’t see it happen, and Devi doesn’t exactly come out the other side of the time jump self-actualized.
Back at school post-montage, she claims she’s over Paxton (no one really believes her, especially Paxton, which is wildly egotistical and yet also in line with the thinking of teenage boys), but at the mere mention that he’s dating someone new, she becomes angry and upset. When she sees him with his new girlfriend, she needs to physically leave the room to process her emotions. And instead of accepting that she still needs time to heal and grow, Devi chooses the best course of action is to make Paxton jealous by dancing with Des, the cute son of her mother’s new friend. That she ends up falling for him by the end of the episode and is upset when he ghosts her feels repetitive, and it makes the time jump feel not just lazy but detrimental to the show. Plus, Devi begins following similar patterns of behavior and doesn’t focus on herself the way we’re led to believe she will after Paxton breaks up with her, which only exacerbates the problem.
The best TV series show rather than tell. The biggest flaw of Never Have I Ever Season 3 is not that Devi continues to bounce between love interests (though it is rather tiring at this point) or even that she’s still fixated on how other people view her. It’s that the writers haven’t given the story—which is still funny and entertaining, mind you—the proper time to develop and breathe. Bypassing Devi’s healing via time jump and then telling us she’s gone through tremendous growth does a disservice to the tremendous young woman at the heart of the show. By trying to cram evidence of personal progress into the finale once Devi is presented with an opportunity to spend her senior year at a prestigious boarding school in Colorado with like-minded students doesn’t do the show any favors, either. The story is introduced, explored, discussed, decided, and then disregarded in less than 30 minutes. Paxton’s attempt to succeed academically in order to get into college is better plotted and thought out than Devi’s own arc at times.
While it might be realistic for a high school student to be somewhat stagnant and then make big leaps forward—most teenagers are self-absorbed and refuse to listen to what’s best for them until they’re inevitably forced to do so—Never Have I Ever is a TV show. Progress needs to happen so the narrative can move forward. Telling us it has occurred is not the same as putting in the work and depicting it. Now, it’s possible (and even likely) that the writers’ hands were tied and they needed to fast-forward character arcs so Devi and her friends were where they needed to be for the fourth and final season. But rushing stories this way fails the very same characters. It also begins to steal attention away from the things the show does well, like depict a complex relationship between Devi and her mother and subtly remind us that grief comes and goes and that we all process it differently. There is still so much to like about Never Have I Ever (shout-out to Trent!), but more focus on Devi’s actual growth—and showing us the process—has to be a top priority for the show’s swan song. Otherwise, it’s just more teen boys and free boinks, and we’ve been there, done that.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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