The second season of Mindy Kaling’s hit Netflix show hit our screens last week and we have a lot to talk about. The first season faced a lot of criticism, ranging from the inexperience of certain actors to unrealistic writing. One major criticism of its initial release seemed to be that the show fell into the same trap as many other high school TV shows with out-of-touch writers failing to capture the modern teen high school experience. While some may argue that this season still continues to have that feeling, there is a significant improvement in storytelling, writing, and acting throughout the season.
Season 2 picks up exactly where the previous one left off, with Devi having just spread her father’s ashes and sitting in the car (AKA making out) with her nemesis turned love-interest Ben Gross. In a further twist, Devi finds herself this season caught up in the middle of a love-triangle between Ben and her all-time crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida. As the season progresses, despite her previous character growth, Devi finds herself continuously making very questionable decisions – all of which spectacularly blow up in her face. As a viewer, you can clearly see that both the actors and the writers on the show have come into their own and have a much stronger understanding of their own individual character’s quirks and personality. Much more than last season, I found myself genuinely laughing with the show and found that their jokes landed more in the ‘actually funny’ category rather than just out of second-hand cringe.
For me, the most important thing I took from this show was its positive portrayal of a Desi Muslim girl. As a Muslim myself, I have come to expect the uncaring and entirely backwards portrayal of Muslim teens in Netflix shows (cough ‘Elite’ cough). However, this season’s addition Aneesa Qureshi, was a welcome and refreshing change in Muslim representation. What I think that is important to point out in Aneesa’s character is that her being Muslim does not define her, nor does it become her sole identity. It is imperative that young Muslims, especially girls, see the nuances of what it means to not only be South Asian in predominantly white spaces, but Muslim as well in an increasingly Islamophobic world. Aneesa is just a teenager, she just wants to fit in at her new school, make some real friends (and maybe have a boyfriend too). What’s even more interesting, is how the show uses Aneesa’s character to instead focus on more deep-rooted issues within her, and the reason she comes to Sherman Oaks High School in the first place– her eating disorder. Not only does this flesh out her character to be more complex, but it also simultaneously doesn’t fall into the trap of turning her into the ‘cool girl’ trope as competition for Devi, as well as, not pushing negative stereotypes about Muslims.
Eating disorders in the South Asian community are rarely talked about. What is even more heart-breaking about this topic in the context of this season, is that Aneesa reveals that her eating disorder was the direct result of trying to live up to unrealistic beauty standards and being compared to her white female counterparts. Being a teenager in high school is already tough enough on your self-esteem, but the insecurity that comes from being unable to live up to Eurocentric beauty standards is an entirely different ballpark. So, not only does the show take a minute to tackle the rampant and wide-spread issue of eating disorders in young girls, but it stresses the nuance of it, particularly for South Asian women.
However, despite its definite improvement and welcome new characters, there are still some serious issues to address with this season. Firstly, although the more serious issues with certain characters were discussed, it seemed to be thrown in as an afterthought, and in the background to, Devi and her love-life. The addition of Devi’s best friend Eleanor being in a seemingly toxic and emotionally abusive relationship, seemed to be clumsily thrown in as a goofy side story, and did not take the time to unpack the trauma related to that. In the end, she apparently comes to the realisation that she is trying to replace her absent mother, all on her own within the span of a 30-minute episode. Even her other best friend Fabiola, has a serious crisis with her gender expression and queer identity in her first relationship with a woman. However, again, these important issues are not given the time of day to be properly fleshed out and are seen as quirky side stories to the main plot. While there is the valid argument that as side-characters the show simply does not have time to delve into their stories, the way that it is shown is awkward and almost out-of-place. Not only that, there is an entire episode bizarrely dedicated to Paxton and his backstory, as a high-school athlete having to work hard for the first time in his educational career to get into university (but hilariously narrated by Gigi Hadid I do have to say). So, this does beg the question that if the show had time to unpack Paxton's backstory (and Ben's in S1), why couldn't it do the same for two of the most important people in Devi's life?
Despite its faults, ‘Never Have I Ever’ season 2 is much better than its initial release, and it has so much potential to keep growing and keep being better. This season definitely seems to find its feet and the balance between being an outrageous comedy and drama. It’s role as positive representation for South Asian women goes without saying and it is so heart-warming to see what kind of image is out there for young Desi girls. Even more, it does at least try and attempt to portray the trauma that many young teenagers face regardless of ethnic background. We hope that its continued success not only keeps the TV show going, but inspires other creators within the South Asian community to come forward and bring their experiences to the big screen as well.
Aleesa Nazeer is a 21 year old Biomedical Science student at the University of Warwick, and Social Campaigns Coordinator at Pardesi. She is originally Pakistani, but has spent her life living in different places around the world, majority being in Hong Kong and Bahrain. Spending so many years not connected with her roots, she is passionate about not only learning more about her cultural history, but how to incorporate her cultural background into being an intersectional feminist.