In retrospect, no matter how long and arduous it seemed at the time, high school actually went by in the blink of an eye. And for better or worse, the new season of Never Have I Ever decides to speedrun through junior year too.
The Netflix series returns to the life of overachieving high school student Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). After her father’s death, Devi spent freshman year as a social pariah, and the first two seasons of Never Have I Ever focused on her quest to gain some social status during sophomore year, continue excelling at her studies, and balance her strict mother’s expectations. With a fun, eclectic cast to round Devi out, Never Have I Ever succeeded in balancing over-the-top hijinks with genuine heart and really nailed the big feelings of being a teenager.
This new season does have some of that, but the creators seem determined to put everything on the fast track to get all the characters where they need to be for season 4 and senior year. As a result, a lot of what makes the show so special gets lost in the race toward the end.
[Ed. note: This review contains some setup spoilers for Never Have I Ever season 3.]
Season 3 kicks off with Devi and super popular Paxton (Darren Barnet) making their official debut as a couple — much to the shock and disbelief of the rest of the school, who can’t believe that a nerd like Devi is dating a hot jock. While Devi is finally living her dream of having a relationship with the hottest guy in school, she is still fixated on what other people think about her, which ends up causing her to doubt Paxton’s feelings. Meanwhile, her friends grapple with their own relationship problems: robotics nerd Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) tries to navigate a suddenly long-distance relationship; theater kid Eleanor (Ramona Young) isn’t even sure if Paxton’s slacker friend Trent (Benjamin Norris) is into her; and Devi’s academic rival Ben (Jaren Lewison) keeps flubbing his relationship with athletic Aneesa (Megan Suri). At home, Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) deals with their grandmother’s disappointment after she turned down a marriage proposal.
This all seems like enough setup and plot to fuel a whole season, but the show resolves all of those separate plot points pretty quickly — only to introduce completely new problems that also get rapidly solved. Never Have I Ever is a comedy made up of 30-minute episodes, so some level of episodic detachment is expected. But this time around, the threads connecting the separate episodes seem thinner than ever. It’s not quite a “one problem per episode” sitcom formula, but it doesn’t have as much throughline this time around compared to seasons past.
Part of the reason is because the cast is just so much bigger. The show doesn’t just explore the lives of Devi and her friends, but also dives into Ben’s, Paxton’s, Kamala’s, and Devi’s mother’s journeys. This is pretty in line with the previous seasons, where Fabiola’s coming out storyline and Eleanor’s complicated relationship with her mother helped to flesh out their character arcs. But this time, there are just so many characters that some of them naturally fall to the wayside. When one of them gets a big story moment, it gets built up for an episode or two before being hastily tied up and put away so that someone else can have the spotlight.
It’s particularly frustrating because these characters are still compelling and their storylines are still engaging — and the previous two seasons took great care in giving every character’s story enough time to gestate. This time around, though, the frenzied pacing means that those arcs have less room. The first two seasons of the show take place in the first half of Devi’s sophomore year. But this season has a time skip a few episodes in, jolting Devi and her friends into their junior year and hustling them along so that they can wrap up the school year and get everything in place for the show’s last season. Instead of the steady pacing of the first two seasons, season 3 feels like someone pressed fast forward and forgot to let go.
There could be a meta commentary in there about how school days pass so fast, but it doesn’t feel intentional. Characters get introduced, built up to incredibly pertinent plot importance, then hastily tossed aside. It makes sense, since the focus always needs to shift back to the core cast of characters. But the main cast doesn’t even really interact much anymore, which is another big reason this season feels lacking. Kamala has a whole epiphany about not wanting to define her life by marriage milestones, only to basically disappear for the back half of the season after she gets into a relationship. Aneesa’s romantic troubles become a pivotal plot point and then never come up again. Devi and Ben, in particular, don’t have as many scenes as they once did. And considering the first two seasons really built him up as a romantic interest and dove into their wonderfully compelling rivalry turned friendship, that whole angle of the show feels particularly sidelined.
That is not to say Ben is completely sidelined out of the show. He has a sizable part, and gets to grow as a character. They all do, really. As with any coming-of-age story, the characters at the center mature and learn a bit more about themselves and the world around them. And there are moments toward the end where their journeys do feel founded and complete. Devi is the main character, so her growth from someone selfish, insecure, and impulsive into someone able to sit down and process the big changes in her life is satisfying. The last few episodes in particular put her in situations where she would have previously acted rashly and cynically — but because of what she’s gone through, she’s able to approach them with more maturity and reason (though she’s still Devi, so she still makes some impetuous decisions, but this time they’re a bit more warranted).
By the end of this season, everything is set in place for the fourth — and final — one. It just took a lot of scrambling in 10 half-hour episodes to get everyone to the places they need to be, both emotionally and physically. Instead of a well-paved path, though, season 3 feels like a janky shortcut, connecting the young and immature versions of the characters first introduced in season 1 to the slightly older and slightly more mature versions they need to be for a satisfying finale. But because it’s a quick bypass instead of the scenic view, there are definitely some moments missed along the way. Hopefully season 4 slows down a bit and lets these characters fully enjoy senior year.
All 10 episodes of Never Have I Ever season 3 premiere on Netflix on Aug. 12.