It’s almost passe to hate on “Twilight” these days, but the franchise provides a textbook example of how difficult it can be to sustain the romantic dynamic — especially with characters of that age. Even among the fictional undead, young love can be fickle. Successful triangles require bonds strong enough to last the length of a feature film, a television season or, sometimes, a full series. And while they might help propel the plot, they more so exist to further develop at least one of the entangled characters.
This makes it all the more impressive that Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” which returned for a second season last week, managed to deliver another 10 solid episodes involving a triangle that had started to feel a bit tired toward the end of the first go-round. The series, created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, maintains the romantic quandary facing high-schooler Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) by relegating it to the background, allowing it to influence episodic plots without dominating them.
It accomplishes this by throwing a wrench into Devi’s plans early in the new season. The first installment ended with her kissing Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), her longtime academic rival, at the same time that Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the jock Devi has always crushed on, leaves her a voice mail asking whether she wants to hang out. Instead of choosing, she decides to date them both — a two-timing scheme that quickly backfires when they both show up to a house party and discover they’ve been played.
From there, “Never Have I Ever” doesn’t fixate on Devi’s love life but explores how her selfish tendencies, some of which inadvertently stem from grief over losing her father, impact her relationships in general. This figures into why Devi butts heads with her mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), and puts a strain on her friendship with a new student, Aneesa Qureshi (Megan Suri), another Indian girl whose immediate popularity poses a threat to Devi. By focusing on Devi’s efforts to compete with Aneesa — which, to be fair, is somewhat influenced by Aneesa hitting it off with Ben — the show is able to touch on the lingering romances without running them into the ground.
The key to maintaining a love triangle, then, is to focus on building the character at its heart. “Twilight” failed to do so in an obvious way, given that it dwelled on two guys fighting over a girl underdeveloped to the extent that she could just as easily have been played by a cardboard cutout. But even beloved, acclaimed works like the “To All the Boys” franchise have faltered in this arena; whereas the first installment earned praise for how it developed the studious Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) without allowing her unlikely relationship with jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) to define her, the sequel wastes time on a love triangle filled out by a character so forgettable he isn’t even mentioned in the third film.
Television series benefit from their real estate; some of the best triangles have unfolded over time, whether Dylan, Brenda and Kelly in “Beverly Hills, 90210″; Felicity, Ben and Noel in “Felicity”; or Rory, Dean, Jess and Logan in “Gilmore Girls” (an evolving love rhombus, if you will).
“Never Have I Ever” follows suit, even expressing in a scene where Devi visits her therapist (Niecy Nash) that her boy problems are just distractions she can use as an opportunity to grow on her own. Devi’s relationship with Ben encourages her to extend empathy toward those she has written off, while Paxton’s often obtuse behavior teaches her to stand up for what she deserves. The choice isn’t so much between two guys as it is between who Devi has been and who she wants to be — another hallmark of the teen genre.