The second season of Mindy Kaling’s Netflix teen drama is a cliche-free, three-dimensional revival of what had become a desperately tired genre, says Micha Frazer-Carroll
jen 2021, it feels strange to admit that I sincerely enjoyed watching a new romcom. I’ll be honest – I haven’t felt too hopeful about the genre for at least a decade. But season two of Mindy Kaling’s teenage drama Never Have I Ever is making me want to scream it from the rooftops… I’m in love! (With this show.)
The coming-of-age series, which follows the romantic pursuits of Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and is loosely based around Kaling’s own adolescence, manages to explore teenagehood, douleur, family tensions, santé mentale, sex and relationship dramas, and the realities of living in an immigrant family in the US. But perhaps most interestingly, the writers manage to package all of this up within the humble romcom format, which has long since slid from its golden age.
From 1989’s When Harry Met Sally to 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, romcoms had a supreme 20-year reign that straddled the turn of the century, avec environ 10 big romcoms being churned out per year at the genre’s height. But as we moved into the 2010s, things started to get stale and derivative. It eventually became textbook – we knew to expect bold red title fonts and quirky, blanc, well-to-do heterosexual leads. Our potential lovebirds were often unlikely pairings who would overcome some fundamental difference to eventually live happily ever after. Et, encased within roughly 100 minutes, there were also sure to be some comedic misunderstandings, embarrassments, and – at the genre’s least creative – slapstick japes. I don’t know about you, but by the time I saw the infamously clichéd Love Actually rip-off Valentine’s Day, I was sure the genre was pretty much dead. So what makes Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, alongside a tiny group of recent romcom gems, so different?
Part of Never Have I Ever’s originality is surely to do with the fact that it comes in the form of a TV series – which feels more apt for Gen Z and, with a longer runtime, allows for more nuance. The feature-length romcom, which traditionally attempts to introduce us to our budding lovers, establish a barrier to their relationship, and then glide from conflict to resolution in under two hours, leaves little space for anything truly subtle or surprising on the thousandth go around. Most interesting things you can do in that time period have already been done, and are less fun to watch again. Take last year’s Netflix Christmas flop Holidate – which follows a rich white guy and a rich white girl who on first meeting despise each other (a rehash of When Harry met Sally, The Ugly Truth and about a hundred others), then hatch a plan to pose as each other’s partners (The Proposal, The Wedding Date, Just Go With It, Pretty Woman) during the holidays (The Holiday, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Love Actually). The premise alone makes you want to roll your eyes, and you can undoubtedly predict how it all plays out.
Although Kaling’s show is obviously not the first romcom to step through the looking glass into TV format, by doing so, the writers are given more room for imagination. I moved through season two of the show being genuinely unsure of who Devi might end up with – if anyone. And each character, not just Devi, has a real backstory and a complex inner life of their own; take Devi’s mum Nalini, who in this series grapples with dating in the wake of her husband’s death, or Devi’s best friend Fabiola, who struggles to fit in with the cool queer girls because she knows nothing about The L Word ou alors Killing Eve. At any given time in the story, there are multiple, complex and interwoven storylines – where romance is a part of the equation, but never all of it. The writers also aren’t afraid to have fun with the medium and throw a few weird curveballs in too. In case you didn’t know, the entire series is inexplicably narrated by 61-year-old tennis legend John McEnroe, who adds a bizarre but playful element to the narration that feels reminiscent of fellow TV romcom Jane the Virgin.
Part of the show’s success is also down to its approach to representation. There’s been much discussion around the fact that the series revolves around an Indian protagonist – but it’s equally interesting that the majority of the main cast are people of colour. Devi’s two best friends are Black and Chinese American (one of whom is queer), and Paxton, one of the guys Devi spends most of the show crushing on, is also mixed race. As a result of this, the show is able to approach issues of race through a truly three-dimensional lens.
We see clear proof of this in season two, where Devi makes a new Indian friend, Aneesa, and experiences the frustration of teachers getting their names mixed up (it happens to all people of colour at some point) and feeling like she has to compete with her in the realms of popularity and romance. Simultaneously, Nalini loves Aneesa because she comes from a similar cultural background, and understands how parents might expect to be greeted: “How can I help out aunty?” These are interesting dynamics – surrounding race, culture, Amitié, et, bien sûr, romance – that were never given space in the romcoms of days gone by, by virtue of the fact that they rarely featured more than one ethnic minority character. The choice to go beyond racial tokenism feels unusual for a mainstream teen show, but for Kaling, it really pays off.
Season two of Never Have I Ever firmly cements the show’s place as an actually successful 2020s romcom. Other honourable mentions in the category include Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Alice Wu’s The Half of It, et bien sur, Issa Rae’s Insecure, which helped pave the way for all these messy stories about young women of colour navigating romance. Like the best romcoms around the turn of the millennium, none of these stories take themselves too seriously – yet they’re still able to pack an emotional punch when it matters most. They also successfully deliver love stories from perspectives that, traditionally, have almost always been overlooked. In a genre that went out of fashion because it simply became too repetitive, it is that disruptive quality that makes these new narratives so genuinely refreshing.