In typical Mindy Kaling fashion, her Netflix teen comedy, Never Have I Ever, is equal parts romantic comedy, coming-of-age story, and cultural revelation. The show focuses on Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first-generation Indian-American teenage girl who is an overachieving, whip-smart high school sophomore who also happens to have a short temper that tends to get her into sticky situations. Despite being a self-proclaimed nerd, Devi isn’t meek or unassuming — instead, she’s brazenly outspoken, headstrong, stubborn, and a pop culture savant. She’s ready to take her sophomore year of high school by storm, but shenanigans and classic Kaling insanity intervene, and she finds herself smack dab in the middle of a love triangle.
Somehow, the nerd finds herself torn between the affections of the hot, high school jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and her nemesis-turned-friend Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). Devi grows closer to each boy throughout the first season, sharing vulnerable moments and an intimate smooch with both of them by the finale. And since we love dramatic tension like nobody’s business, two POPSUGAR editors have come together to settle the Ben-Devi-Paxton affair like civilized women and debate which duo reigns supreme. Though both editors agree that Devi has a boatload of issues she needs to sort out by herself before she seriously enters any relationships, we’re also ready to defend our favorite pairing in this particular Ship War.
Mekishana: Obviously, a show like Never Have I Ever is going to follow one of the holiest rules of teen comedies: have the main character be obsessed with the hottest guy in school. Paxton’s introduction in the show’s first episode sets him up to be the unattainable jock-god that Devi sees him as, the kind of guy who would have to endure a major personality change to fall for our protagonist or show us that he secretly has hidden depths that’ll make up for being insanely popular just for his looks. But then Devi approaches Paxton with her zany desire to make the beasts with two backs, and the object of her affection agrees.
Fast forward to the season finale, where we’ve seen how easily Devi inserts herself into Paxton’s circle as the two become something like friends. Despite their differences in high school’s social hierarchy, how awkwardly their relationship began, and the way it almost imploded, Devi and Paxton have palpable chemistry and are genuinely fun to watch together. It seems cliche to want the nerd to end up with the jock, but Kaling gave us two characters who transcend their tropes realistically enough that it doesn’t feel like a stereotypical relationship. Despite — or I would argue, maybe even because of — Devi’s out-there personality, Paxton has been into her from the beginning (although it was admittedly just sexual at first), and I want to see more of how that could develop.
Grayson: While watching Never Have I Ever, it’s clear who you should be rooting for Devi to end up with. From the moment Paxton appears on the screen, we’re just as smitten with him as Devi. Getting the hottest guy in school to not only agree to a friends-with-benefits proposition but to genuinely become friends with him is something no one in Devi’s position would give up. At the same time she’s pursuing Paxton, we get more insight into her tense relationship with Ben. They’re rivals, and if there’s one thing people love more than seeing a nerd score the hot person, it’s seeing a rivalry turn romantic.
“Just the way he looks at Devi when they are bonding during the UN trip had my heart melting.”
Throughout the season, I was conflicted on how to feel about Ben. At first, I thought he was just annoying and wanted Devi to rub his smug face into all her accomplishments because he’d been a d*ck to her. Then (potentially due to Jaren Lewison’s portrayal of him), I started to soften on Ben. Just the way he looks at Devi when they are bonding during the UN trip had my heart melting. While Paxton has his merits (and I may want to see Devi explore their relationship), Ben has always seen Devi for her intelligence. It’s only toward the end of the season that he realizes his feelings for Devi (and she for him?). It’d be a shame not to see them together as the power couple of Sherman Oaks High.
Before Devi and Ben become friends, they made each other better by making the other strive to be the top of the class. Without Devi, Ben probably wouldn’t have had the strong motivation to ace all his classes, and vice versa. Sure, they’re both intelligent so they’d have likely done it anyway, but there’s nothing better than having a rival you can crush into the ground. Once their relationship transforms, they help the other take stock in their surroundings and be grateful for what they have and see that things aren’t necessarily greener on the other side. Basically, once they become friends, they both stop being such large d*cks — Devi to her family and friends, and Ben to pretty much everyone.
Mekishana: I can totally see the appeal of Devi and Ben’s enemies-to-lovers relationship; it’s not a tried-and-true rom-com trope for nothing. There’s even a competitive part of me that admires how ruthlessly Devi strives to break Ben’s spirit and undermine him at every turn. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and wasn’t in Model UN, but I understand the thrill of landing a sick burn on a rival. But it’s that exact antagonism that makes me feel incredibly wary of any relationship between the two. It’s really easy to get lost in the idea of former enemies discovering their secret feelings for each other — especially when they’re as adorable as Devi and Ben as they find their ground as friends.
But Ben coming to terms with him liking Devi doesn’t erase all the terrible things he’s said about her, nor does it make her part in their strife any better. Her opinion of him is low enough to believe that his “UN” nickname for her friends is racist, and the revelation that it’s actually an abbreviation for Unf*ckable Nerd doesn’t make it any better. Pulling pigtails is barely cute when the perpetrator is a kid; it’s especially not cute when they’re in high school and using every chance to exploit your weaknesses. Like Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) says in the pilot, “I will tell you, that kid sucks and you should ignore him.”
But I get it. The two are intellectual equals, teens are naturally demons to one another, and hormones can make things confusing. But I’d rather not see Devi fall for the boy she was an assh*le to, and vice versa. Their traumas don’t excuse their behavior toward one another, and it definitely doesn’t point to any healthy relationships in the future. Can you imagine how they’ll react to an issue once they start dating? We’ve seen how instinctively Devi resorts to decimating Ben when he upsets her (she tries to nuke him in Model UN!), and considering how emotionally fragile the two of them are, it’s bound to be incredibly messy. Devi needs time to get her sh*t together in general, but a relationship with Ben would be too much of a minefield of problems for them both — building their friendship should be their top priority.
“That’s the true mark of someone who you need to have in your life.”
Grayson: But Ben has always been ready to do anything for Devi, even as competitors. True, he initially does everything to be better than her, but after their bonding during Model UN, his outlook changes. You can see how he is upset with what is happening between them (this is likely why he makes a move on her during his birthday, since he realizes he doesn’t actually hate her). When she runs away from her mom, he lets her stay in his house, no questions asked. When it’s clear she is spiraling, he rounds up her friends and brings them together to make up. When she thinks she isn’t going to make it to spread her dad’s ashes, he gets into his father’s car and drives her there despite technically only having a permit and not knowing how to drive a stick. He even waits for her to make sure everything is OK rather than potentially leaving her stranded on the beach! That’s the true mark of someone who you need to have in your life.
Mekishana: The idea of having a partner who will do anything for you is romantic, but it also leads to a heavily one-sided relationship. Devi is already inherently selfish — in that self-absorbed way that all teenagers are because feelings are 10 times more consuming when you’re an adolescent — and we’ve seen how often she takes people for granted. That isn’t to say she doesn’t care about other people, she’s just prone to thinking about herself first. Whereas Ben is hungry for affection and can be easily taken advantage of because of that. It’s obvious he has no problems challenging Devi academically, but I can’t imagine how he’ll fare if they start dating and he’s trying to win her over romantically.
On the other hand, the roles are semi-reversed when it comes to Devi and Paxton. Because of Devi’s blatant affection for him, Paxton seemingly has an upper hand when it comes to their power dynamics. (I swear I don’t look at relationships like power trips, just bear with me.) When Paxton texts her about an emergency, Devi runs to his side even though she’s supposed to be dealing with Eleanor’s (Ramona Young) mommy drama. And there’s that whole thing about her housing a giant crush on him and doing everything she can to be in his circle.
But Paxton does his share of supporting Devi as well: he stays by her side at the hospital after the coyote attack, he gives her advice about dealing when she’s struggling during the Ganesh Puja celebration, and he comforts her after Ben’s disastrous party. And as we see in the season finale, Paxton isn’t totally immune to feeling vulnerable because of Devi. His fear of being too stupid (which Devi’s mother should not have said and is still on my sh*tlist for) for her is put to light, and it’s when we realize that however the power dynamics appeared before doesn’t tell the whole story. But truthfully, this isn’t about what either boy can do for Devi, because they both care about her in their way and express that as such. It’s mostly about how they work together, which Devi and Ben admittedly do more than her and Paxton. At least academically.
Grayson: Ben and Devi have always competed against each other, enough so that they had to split their extracurricular activities in half for their paths not to cross all the time. Both are constantly at the top of their class, usually edging out the other for the number one spot. This shows that at their core, they’re the same, and while opposites may attract, sometimes you just need someone who gets you in a relationship.
Mekishana: It’s true, Ben and Devi are more compatible when it comes to their academics. As Devi tells an incredulous Ben during their Model UN trip, Paxton is just “consistently bad at school.” (Which is a thing; some people just don’t thrive under the rigid structure of the education system!) But that doesn’t mean Paxton is dumb, and it doesn’t mean Ben and Devi suit each other romantically. If anything, their scholarly competitiveness could be a problem since neither of them is very good at playing fairly or nicely when it comes to the other. The one time they tried to work together, it ended in Model World War III.
Notably, when Devi and Paxton work together, she shoulders a majority of the work — it’s implied that’s why he asked her to work with him in the first place. But Paxton knows he isn’t dumb and hasn’t shown any other instances of using Devi for her intelligence; in fact, he probably thinks of it as part and parcel of her weirdness and moves on. A lot of focus on their relationship is often on Devi’s attraction to Paxton and how he’s a stereotype of the dumb jock, but when you actually look at the material, Paxton’s been into Devi from the beginning. At first, it’s mainly him being down to have sex with her, but after their first fight (and probably after he realizes she’s a virgin), the two start down the path to become friends. Devi goes from a potential hookup to the weird girl who Paxton is fond of. He has no problem integrating her within his friend group, enjoys hanging out with her at parties, and doesn’t fall into the trap of being a douchey jock that usually occurs in these scenarios.
“Paxton does like Devi, and when he puts away the bullsh*t, he’s ready to go for what he wants.”
The two are genuinely friends until Paxton learns that Devi has been fueling the rumor that they’ve slept together, and his reaction of utter betrayal is a sign that he is really hurt by her actions. We can see now that he truly saw Devi as a friend and the thought of being used by her is painful. The fact that Paxton still reaches out to get her help with his sister Rebecca’s photo shoot is another big flag that he sees Devi as more than just a weird hanger-on; considering how protective he is of his sister, it shows that Devi is still one of the few people he’s comfortable trusting around her, even after their falling out.
It’s not until the final episode — after the two have shared a sweet kiss — that Paxton truly confronts his feelings about Devi thanks to Rebecca. He puts on that douchey jock cap for a hot second, noting that he’s cool while Devi is known for competing in the National Spelling Bee (which is a true accomplishment, TYVM). Rebecca pokes at his defenses and forces him to realize that “if you blow her off, then actually, you are stupid.” It’s a light-bulb moment that’s taken right out of the best rom-coms, and it serves its purpose well — now we know that Paxton does like Devi, and when he puts away the bullsh*t, he’s ready to go for what he wants. But Ben’s already made his move! The only question is, where do they go next?
Grayson: Although I’m Team Ben, I’m not anti-Team Paxton. Both guys have their pros and cons, and I’d be happy for Devi to end up with either. That being said, I’m more Team Devi-needs-to-get-her-life-together and unapologetically be herself before she brings a boy into the mix. She’s young, and high school is all about starting on the journey to discovering who you are and what you want from life. Is that Ben? Is that Paxton? No matter who she chooses — the answer to which will hopefully be explored in a season two (you hear that, Netflix?) — Devi needs to remember to put herself first and not let a boy consume her entire life.
Mekishana: Hard agree on Devi needing to get her whole situation together for the sake of her mental health and the sanity of everyone around her. And it’s not just because I would love to see more of Nash’s Dr. Ryan, who is regularly dishing out the ultimate advice. “Having just any boyfriend, no matter who he is, is not going to make you happier or change who you are,” Dr. Ryan tells Devi early in season one. “Do you really think you’d make a good girlfriend right now?” Wiser words have never been spoken to a young Indian-American teen who just started walking again after being so traumatized by her father’s sudden death that she lost the use of her legs for summer.
So yes, I hope Devi takes the time to figure out her grief before she jumps into anything with Ben or Paxton. But because I know better and am a fan of fictional teenagers being hot messes over romance, I’d also love to see Devi and Paxton build on their chemistry some more. They deviate just enough from the stereotypical nerd/jock trope to be interesting, and there are so many ways their relationship could cause hilarity. It would also be great to see Devi get to know Paxton beyond what she’s built him up to be in her mind and allow him to show her that she doesn’t need to make herself “cooler” to be worthy of attention. But whichever route Never Have I Ever takes, I have the utmost faith that Kaling and Lang Fisher will deliver their story with the same endearing awkwardness they gifted us in season one.