As if we’d want it any other way, love is in the air as Never Have I Everthird season begins. devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is officially dating the school’s most popular jock, Paxton (Darren Barnet). Her best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are flustered by fraught new (potential) relationships. Her cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjanic), has detoured from an impending arranged marriage to figure out what—and who—she really wants. Basically every character on the Netflix comedy has some kind of romantic prospect waiting in the wings—even, in a more platonic sense, Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), who realizes she might need a new friend, and meets one in a nutritionist played by Sarayu Blue.
Spinning these rom-com plates marks standard fare for serial comfort TV—the overlapping content of soaps and sitcoms, the stuff that keeps us invested season after season. Of course, some shows handle the familiarity better than others. And Never Have I Everas it enters its third season (all 10 episodes have been screened for critics), can now count itself at the top of that class with more certainty than, well, ever.
Right from the Mindy Kaling and Long Fisher-created series’s 2020 debut, Never Have I Ever‘s scripts were punchy, dense with genuinely funny jokes and setpieces. The performances—particularly those of Ramakrishnan, a slapstick revelation in the lead, and Jagannathan, somehow both the funniest and saddest part of the show—emerged uniformly strong. More always lurked beneath the clever surface. The first season introduced itself as a sharp, shaggy comedy before evolving into a moving and uncompromising portrait of family grief, as Devi came to terms with the untimely death of her father. Never Have I Ever proved it could be more than a good teen comedy—maybe, in its fullness and breadth (and, sure, horniness), it could be a great one.
The third season, premiering Friday on Netflix, possesses a similar deftness. There’s confidence in the opening scenes, immersing us back into life at Sherman Oaks High School and allowing us to get used to the new (again, mostly romantic) character dynamics. You see Devi’s adolescent world and Nalini’s adult world gradually expanding—daughter and mother growing patient with one another, each less irked by the other’s every move, more focused on themselves. Toward the season’s conclusion, though, these spheres again contract as the continued weight of their collective grief and the looming reality of Devi entering adulthood pulls them closer—and the show toward greater emotional resonance.
The season moves swiftly and without lull, though a few episodes stand out. Offering a letter respite from John McEnroe‘s (great!) voice over, Andy Samberg returns to narrate another superb standalone installation focused on Ben (Years Lewison), Devi’s rival overachiever and persistent romantic foil. A late-season debate competition nicely brings some of the show’s richest threads together. And the finale is, mostly, a marvel of a two-hander between Devi and Nalini as they wend their way toward realizing, with some catharsis, just how much they need each other. Never Have I Ever has established a pattern of starting a season far funnier than it winds up, and the flow this time feels particularly immaculate, with a clearer command of tone that allows the silly and the sad to sit side-by-side.
I think of Kaling’s season-premiere script in that vein, hitting such complicated beats with precision, over and over. She has the expositional work of getting viewers up to speed, the setup of where various incidents will take our characters this season—and yet it’s still jam-packed with incredibly funny dialogue and incredibly strong character work. In one scene, Devi sits with her therapist, Dr. Ryan (the great Niecy Nash), as she negotiates her complicated feelings about being suddenly cool—and, in turn, exposed. She overhears a group of popular girls—functioning here as a kind of perfectly Kaling-esque teen chorus—agog at how Paxton could’ve chosen her as his new girlfriend, and reflects, “Some girls said that I must be a slut for Paxton to like me—and not slut, like, in the cool, affectionate way gay men say it on reality shows!” Ramakrishnan nails the joke, unsurprisingly. But she also delivers it with a wounded tone that lingers—a big laugh tinged with heartbreak.