Never Have I Ever season two: Unashamed ogling and character depth
The second season of Never Have I Ever is streaming now on Netflix. Photo / Getty Images
If you Google "Darren Barnet", the first query that comes up is followed by "age".
Clearly, there are many Netflix viewers conflicted about objectifying Barnet if he, in real-life, turns out to be the same age as his high school character in the smart comedy series co-created by Mindy Kaling, Never Have I Ever.
You have to suspect he can't really be that young since the show has no problems making him take his shirt off, camera panning down to take full view of his inexplicably glistening abs.
There are at least three instances in the second season, now streaming on Netflix, including a scene in which the topless Paxton Yoshida-Hall (Barnet's character) is slow-motion sanding down a wonky table leg bathed in the soft light more suited to a Michael Bolton music video than a streaming comedy.
"It's okay", the show is whispering to the audience, "ogle him, it's part of the joke, we're having fun with some genre conventions" but also very obviously, "va-va-voom".
For the record, Barnet is 30 years old. Breathe a sigh of relief – no uncomfortable self-reflection necessary.
There's a fine line between pure objectification and being ironic and winking about those shirtless scenes, and Never Have I Ever is trying to have it both ways.
It's a balance it didn't quite pull off in its debut season, where only the thin foundation of Paxton's characterisation was laid, but the series goes all-in on deepening all of its characters in season two, especially his.
By now, a lot's been made of the fact Chrissy Teigen was canned from narrating an episode this season after a Twitter bullying scandal. That was Paxton's episode, in the same way the first season broke away from John McEnroe's narration of Devi's (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) experiences to let Andy Samberg take over for Ben (Jaren Lewison), a rival for Devi's affections.
In episode three, Teigan's replacement Gigi Hadid takes over the voiceover and tells the audience how she related to Paxton because the burden of being beautiful is people don't expect you'll be anything else.
There have been plenty of hot high school athletes in pop culture who, almost invariably, turn out to have a sensitive and caring side. In some ways, Paxton is another in a long tradition of them, but with Never Have I Ever giving him an episode from his perspective, the character gets to exist without Devi's gaze colouring our view of him.
Never Have I Ever's first season was a series about a young Indian-American teen going through many of the rites of passage so many high-schoolers face around the world, but with the added layers of the trauma of her father's death and in trying to reconcile her cultural heritage with the desire to "be normal".
It was fun, pithy and occasionally genuinely heartfelt, and it showcased a range of characters that are celebrated for their difference.
And Devi was an appealing lead character, even as she made the wrong choices – as hurt teenagers are bound to do. But she was also a self-centred character – again, as teens are wont to be – and the choice to spread the story around even more helps push the series along.
The trailer might suggest season two is all about Devi trying to choose between Paxton and Ben but it's just a hook because the 10 episodes go into much more than that, including the girls' friendship, workplace challenges and Paxton trying to contend with who he is if he's not a star swimmer.
Newcomers this season includes Common as a rival dermatologist to Devi's mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and transfer student Aneesa (Megan Suri), who Devi initially views as a threat as a cooler Indian kid.
Much like Devi, the engaging and entertaining Never Have I Ever undergoes maturation and growth as it expands and explores more of the world it's created.
Never Have I Ever is streaming now on Netflix.