Catch the second season of 'Never Have I Ever' on Netflix. This image is from Netflix's official Youtube channel.

When referring to the representation of marginalized communities in film and TV, we throw around the expression “seeing ourselves on-screen.” It serves as shorthand for explaining why representation matters: Seeing characters who look like you on-screen is powerful. But the phrase has been used so often that it’s taken on a newer, much more literal meaning. 

The second season of Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s “Never Have I Ever” burst onto the TV scene fully-formed this July. The show centers around Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian American teen in Sherman Oaks, Calif., documenting her social life, as well as that of the never-ending crew of her family and friends (seriously, never-ending — there are too many plotlines to explain in this article). It sounds innocent enough, like the regular idealistic American family sitcom focusing on being a “hyphenated American.” But the inciting incident for the show is anything but light-hearted: Devi’s father dies at the beginning of season one, and throughout the series thus far, Devi tries to suppress the pain of losing her closest family member. On the surface, “Never Have I Ever” is marketed as a light-hearted, diverse comedy, but underlying this is a very real story of pain and frustration. Devi often acts out in confrontational ways, rendering her a complex character that can be difficult to support. 

Her story is nuanced and specific, so at face value, there are parts of Devi’s story that felt unrelatable to some in the South Asian community — I’ve scrolled through more than a lifetime’s worth of Reddit threads and TikToks that ridicule Devi for being “unrealistic.” But what is realistic representation supposed to look like? 

It’s no secret that marginalized communities, including Asian Americans, are historically underrepresented in Hollywood. As we anticipate “seeing ourselves on-screen,” we’re sure that once we do see an Indian American show, it’ll represent everything about us. Yes, South Asian people are united by their heritage and cultures, but for every story or character to emulate a one-size-fits-all blanket of “representation” is unrealistic. “Never Have I Ever” is written “in the spirit” of Mindy Kaling’s adolescence, and after the first season, it faced a reckoning about the kind of show it wanted to be. Season two of “Never Have I Ever” takes a cautious step in the right direction: it gives many characters storylines that feel meaningful, without being watered down for widespread appeal. 

Probably the biggest event this season is the arrival of Aneesa Qureshi (Megan Suri) in episode four. Aneesa is Devi Vishwakumar’s foil. She’s cool, collected and considerate of others. Devi and Aneesa joke about common experiences while trying to accept there’s room for more than one Indian girl at Sherman Oaks High. Aneesa’s story, as an Indian American Muslim, gives another perspective on the first season’s observations on the Indian American community; by introducing Aneesa’s character, the show steps into its own, telling a much more realized story. Suri plays a character that’s impossible not to love (unlike Devi). 

I mean this with love, as a fellow stubborn Tamil-American girl whose personality also gives others extreme secondhand embarrassment — Devi is a pain in the ass. There were scenes I had to mute when watching the first time around because they felt so real. Ramakrishnan creates a stunning portrait of Devi, a girl who two-times her boyfriends, hurts Aneesa and constantly ignores the needs of her friends and family. Despite claims of the last few episodes, it doesn’t appear that Devi has grown as a character. So how is the show able to retain a viewership of 40 million people? Because underneath all the well-timed jokes, Devi’s story is raw. As she struggles to find connections to her dad and the person she used to be, it’s impossible not to be moved.

A huge reason for this is the stellar writing and acting that portrays Devi’s family as they navigate through her father’s painful death. Nalini, Devi’s firm yet empathetic mother, is struggling to raise Devi after the death of her husband. This season, she ponders whether she should move to India, and ends up falling for Common (well, at least, his character, Dr. Chris Jackson). Nalini is a favorite within the show, and for good reason; played exquisitely by the regal Poorna Jagannathan (“The Night Of”), the character was lauded by Vanity Fair for breaking stereotypes of immigrant mothers. Other stars of the season include Nirmala, Devi’s naive but good-hearted grandmother, played by the actress Ranjita Chakravarty (“O Mother, Where Art Thou?”) as well as Sendhil Ramamurthy (“Covert Affairs”) playing Devi’s dad. The nuanced, intimate portrayal of Devi’s family is what grounds the show. Kamala, Devi’s cousin, is seen differently this season; she struggles with a narrative that feels much more textbook than the rest of the series, facing discrimination at her new lab. The storyline’s exaggerated pop-culture references take away from her dire circumstances at her new place of work; still, Kamala makes a powerful choice at the end of the season. 

What was less special about this season is Devi’s love triangle, as well as the way she treats her friends. In the first season, the tangled feelings between Devi, Ben (Jaren Lewison) and Paxton (Darren Barnett) felt cheerful, if not cliche. This season, the triangle evolved into something much more sinister, with no shortage of manipulation. Although the show moved away from the textbook storylines of season one, this narrative is exhausting to get through. Devi’s friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez, “Class of Lies”) and Eleanor (Ramona Young, “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”) are given too little time on-screen. After coming out, Fabiola feels overwhelmed with the unfamiliar world of queer pop culture, while Eleanor falls in love with a manipulative former Disney star. Devi mostly ignores both of them, unless she happens to be in the room where her friends are having emotional breakdowns. The pop-culture references in Fabiola’s storyline felt odd and unresearched (what was with that King Princess comment?) Still, both Rodriguez and Young are phenomenal: Young’s comedic timing, especially, makes Eleanor feel criminally underutilized. Hopefully, there will be more interactions between Trent and Eleanor in the coming season, as they are the two funniest characters on the show. However, Eleanor and Fabiola aren’t the only friends Devi has this season: Aneesa arrives halfway through, bringing a down-to-earth vibe compared to the chaos of Devi and her regular friends.

“Never Have I Ever”’s second season takes a stab at finding its own voice. Yes, it’s a touch cliche, and the season felt oddly long, but ultimately, the show is fun. Season three can’t come fast enough.

Daily Arts writer Meera Kumar can be reached at kmeera@umich.edu.