Growing up is watching a teen show and realizing that you no longer relate to the main character—but to her parents instead.
That’s where I’m at with Never Have I Ever, Netflix’s wonderfully funny, incredibly sweet series, now in its third season. It’s not that the daily struggles of newly minted high school junior Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) no longer resonate with me.
This season, Devi loses the battle against her own self-loathing, resulting in a jealousy that terminally strains her relationship with her dream guy. She dates a fellow first-gen Indian American for the first time, and reckons with the ease and difficulties that come with it. And she badly wants the people in her life to see her as the version of herself she wishes she was, if only she actually knew how to make that wish come true.
I can and do relate to all of this, except for the “having a boyfriend” parts. (I was a huge-ass nerd in high school too, but not the well-dressed, cute, sociable kind that Devi and her pals are.) But for as much focus as Never Have I Ever places on Devi’s sex-less sexcapades, Season 3 makes it clearer than ever where the real heart lies: the relationship between Devi and her mom.
Devi and her mom, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), have mostly been at odds since the show started. It’s natural: Devi was closer to her dad, who died in a tragic, abrupt way before the pilot. Nalini is unaccustomed to being a single mother, especially to a daughter as volatile as Devi can be. And the whole first-gen teen vs. last-gen parent struggle is incredibly real—especially when you’re a teen girl who wants to kiss boys instead of hanging out with your Hindu grandma.
But each season has seen Devi becoming a little more accepting of her mom, and vice versa. Season 3 is all about coming to terms with who you, and the people around you are, and it’s their relationship that shows that best. A lot of the progress that Devi and Nalini make, though, is only possible because of what she learns while dating those boys her mother doesn’t approve of.
There’s a fantastic scene halfway through the season where Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the school’s hottest guy and Devi’s hard-won new boyfriend, confronts her about her paranoid behavior. “I really like you, but I don’t think we can have a real relationship until you like yourself,” Paxton tells her. Crushing, but correct—and course-correcting at that.
There are plenty of these small, heartbreaking moments weaved into the show. It’s part of why it’s so affecting: It’s legitimately laugh-out-loud funny (in large part thanks to John McEnroe’s great, weird narration) and tearjerking. This is a season where Devi loses not one but two boyfriends, after all—Des (Anirudh Pisharody), the son of her mom’s new friend Rhyah (Sarayu Blue), dumps her at his mom’s behest. Devi’s unstable, Rhyah says, after Devi breaks down backstage during the first orchestra concert she’s played in since her dad died during one.
A lot of the humor—and needed affirmation—comes from Devi’s best friends, Fabiola and Eleanor (Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young), in top form as always. Eleanor is dating dumb-dumb Trent (Benjamin Norris), which provides some cutesy comic relief from how mismatched they seem. And Fabiola is such an awkward mega-nerd that it brings a much-needed levity to her own dating life, as a newly out queer woman.
Both of these girls are as unfiltered as Devi is, yes, but in a much less snarky way; they balance out Devi’s misanthropy and hardships with a lot of earnestness and comparably mundane issues. (Eleanor just wants to recite the J. Lo monologue from Hustlers in peace! Why won’t anyone play Fabiola’s favorite convoluted board game with her?!)
But there is no one who can validate Devi better than Nalini. Never Have I Ever is great at making this obvious to the viewers, even if Devi herself has trouble seeing it: We’re not as wedded to Devi’s perspective as other teen shows might be.
We’re given breaks from the junior-year drama to see Nalini befriend Rhyah, only to slowly learn that a friendship isn’t always worth it for the sake of having one. We watch her eyebrows arch and soften as she considers the roots of her daughter’s behavior—sneaking out to a party, dating a hot jock she doesn’t approve of—and compromises on them. By the end of the season, I cried and cried and cried when Devi finally realized this for herself: Her mom is awesome.
As much fun as it is to follow the ups and downs of high school life for nerdy girls of color (and it’s always fun!), Season 3 helped me comfortably make peace with how little I can empathize with them these days. I’ll always love and root for Devi, Eleanor, Fabiola, and their newer (very funny, non-nerdy) pal Aneesa (Megan Suri)—along with Paxton and Trent and Ben (Jaren Lewison), Devi’s eternal “will they/won’t they” crush. But I’m at the point in my life where I need a show that doesn’t demonize the adults in these teens’ lives, and Never Have I Ever is proud to be that kind of show.