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Eleanor, Fabiola, and Devi look skeptically at something ahead in Never Have I Ever season 2.

Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is Disney Channel weird and Friday Night Lights real

The newly arrived season 2 isn’t realistic, but it’s completely believable

Photo: Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

For a comedy about awkward, messy teenagers, Never Have I Ever is astonishingly confident. In its second season, the Netflix comedy builds on a poignant, funny first season by continuing to nail a tricky balance between heartfelt realism and Disney Channel absurdism. It’s the kind of comedy that can delve into a tear-jerking meditation on grief in one scene, then seamlessly transition to over-the-top physical gags where a jock gets hit by a car. This balance makes it ridiculous, but also believable. It’s a comedy that’s hard to resist devouring in a single sitting, only partly because of incredible narration from tennis superstar John McEnroe.

Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, Never Have I Ever follows the continued exploits of Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a Los Angeles high schooler mourning the loss of her father and juggling a love triangle between cute nerd Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) and dreamboat jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). One of the joys of the show’s first season was its delight in complicating these stock teen archetypes. No character on the show is just one thing: Devi’s friends aren’t just theater nerds and robotics club captains; they’re also navigating complicated personal lives, usually quite badly.

Never Have I Ever’s characters are messy and raw in ways that feel true, even when they’re loud and elevated. Devi is a bookish first-generation immigrant, but she’s also selfish and inconsiderate. She starts rumors, spies through a stranger’s skylight when she suspects her mom of going on a date, and tries to date both her crushes at the same time without either of them knowing. Devi is a hot mess, but her at times outlandish behavior is levied with moments that go straight for Friday Night Lights-level sincerity. Devi weeps for the dad she lost, she feels alienated by being one of the only Indian kids in her school (but also relishes that it makes her feel unique), she wants to be normal, she wants to be herself.

This care extends to every other character in season 2. Paxton Hall-Yoshida wants to be seen as more than a jock, but is scared about the loss of social clout that might come from being himself. Devi’s friend Eleanor (Ramona Young) is a theater kid who loves acting and ends up dating Malcolm (a murderously funny Tyler Alvarez), a classmate who just came back from a stint as a Disney Channel star. At the same time, Eleanor wrestles with accepting her new stepmom. Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) is captain of the robotics team and used to feeling deeply uncool, but now that she’s out and dating a girl, she’s confronted with a hip queer culture that she feels like she has to fit into.

Never Have I Ever takes its characters’ feelings seriously, and its writers work very hard to make sure the audience understands them. That way, when they do ridiculous things — like staging a marching-band apology performance, or trying to take two boys on a date to the same party, without alerting either one — viewers can laugh at the excess, but stay hooked because they understand.

This is basic good TV storytelling, but it’s extremely hard to pull off. The approach needs everyone on both sides of the camera to agree about what to take seriously and what to goof off with. Never Have I Ever is one of the best shows on Netflix because it nails that balance, and showcases a high school that is nothing like high school, but still feels like it. It’s an appealing fantasy because it plays to such a familiar feeling. Part of the reason high school is tough is that it’s nothing like what the movies promised it would be. But what occasionally made it fun — and what Never Have I Ever recognizes — is the feeling that maybe, at any moment, it could be.

Never Have I Ever seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix.