Netflix’s new Mindy Kaling show proves teen soaps are strongest when they’re grounded in reality.
“Buckle up for some steamy teen romance,” she tells her older cousin Kamala, who has never watched an episode before.
Kamala is entranced by what she sees. “These are all high schoolers? And their parents are okay with them taking showers together in their homes?” she marvels.
“Welcome to American teen soaps,” Devi explains. “The actors are all also older than Mom.”
Just seconds later, Kamala has more Riverdale questions. “Wait, it’s also a murder mystery?” she asks. “What is this show?”
The scene captures everything that makes Riverdale such a delightfully bonkers show: It takes place in a world where beautiful 20-somethings can pretend to attend high school, while also busting jingle-jangle drug rings and the satanic role-playing game Gryphons and Gargoyles. It is completely untethered from reality; that is the joy of it.
But the scene also captures the deep contrast between the heightened and outlandish world of a teen soap like Riverdale and the naturalism of a teen dramedy like Never Have I Ever. On Never Have I Ever, Devi’s not out there solving murders or getting hooked on jingle-jangle. Her big problems are trying to lose her virginity, maintaining her most important friendships, and finding a healthy way to process the death of her father. The joy of Never Have I Ever is that it is emotionally grounded in very normal, and often very petty, teen drama.
The Riverdale and Never Have I Ever models are both valid ways of making teen shows, and neither one is really better or worse than the other. But one of those models is certainly a hell of a lot more durable than the other.
Outlandish teen soaps like Riverdale — and before it, Gossip Girl, The O.C., and 90210 — tend to burn brightly and flame out fast. They usually have buzzy, much-discussed, and action-packed first seasons, and then they fall apart in season two, unable to sustain their momentum. They often run for multiple seasons (Riverdale is currently on its fourth and has been renewed for a fifth), but usually without the sizable audiences or the level of creative energy that animated the first season.
In contrast, more grounded shows like Never Have I Ever tend not to generate the mouth-agape chatter that their scandalous teen soap peers do. Often, these shows are so quiet that they don’t find an audience in time and get canceled after just one season. (Netflix’s Everything Sucks; Freaks and Geeks; the OG, My So-Called Life.)
But when shows like Never Have I Ever manage to stick around past season one — shows like Gilmore Girls and Derry Girls and American Vandal and Friday Night Lights — they tend to be built to last. Their second seasons can be just as good as their first.
I thoroughly enjoyed Riverdale’s first season. But I was also worried by the season finale that the show had run out of story to tell. The second season did nothing to salve my worries, and by the third season, the show had departed from reality so thoroughly that I lost interest and dropped it.
Never Have I Ever hasn’t been canceled or renewed for a second season yet. But the history of teen shows of its ilk suggests that if it comes back for a second season, it will still have a story to tell, and it will have a shot at a good second season. Here’s why.
Riverdale has to keep heightening its stakes, and it ends up facing diminishing returns. Never Have I Ever can afford to keep its story grounded in human-scale conflicts.
A basic rule of storytelling is that conflicts grounded in character tend to be more compelling and also funnier than those that are imposed on characters without. The classic example here is that Donald Duck is funnier than Mickey Mouse, because grumpy, cantankerous Donald is funny no matter what situation you put him in. He generates conflict just by existing, and that makes him fun to watch.
Meanwhile, sunny and cheerful Mickey needs to be placed into a funny situation — or against a contrasting character like Donald — to become interesting. Mickey Mouse can’t make you laugh just by showing up the way Donald Duck can.
Of the shows we’re looking at, over-the-top teen soaps like Riverdale tend to try to follow the Donald Duck model for the first season or so. They’ll arrive with certain outlandish and heightened plots already in place — the Riverdale kids are solving a murder as early as episode one; Serena on Gossip Girl killed a guy — but those over-the-top elements will be grounded in good old-fashioned, character-based conflict. Should Archie be with Betty or Veronica? Will Betty will ever escape from under her mother’s thumb?
It’s the contrast between all the campy murder solving and the sexy, intimate character conflict that makes shows like Riverdale so delicious when they’re starting out. But it’s almost impossible for a show to maintain an effective balance between those two elements. Instead, they end up raising the stakes of the murder mystery plots ever higher; meanwhile, they either dismiss their human-sized conflicts entirely, or they end up just repeating the same ones over and over again. By season two, they’re usually firmly trapped in the Mickey Mouse-mode of storytelling: completely reliant on external conflict to generate tension.
By the end of its first season, Riverdale had slammed the door on doing anything meaningful with either the show’s central love triangle (Archie/Betty/Jughead) or the Archie comics’ central love triangle (Betty/Archie/Veronica). The relationship dynamics were set in stone in such a way that any deviation could never be truly satisfying. (It didn’t stop the show from eventually playing around with other romantic pairings for its leads, but it did mean the results were inevitably going to be boring.) Likewise, it solved its central murder without managing to make either victim or murderer interesting, so the resolution opened up no storytelling opportunities. It was a dead end.
Riverdale spent its post-freshman seasons steadily heightening its external conflicts. If season one was all about a one-off murder, season two could be about a serial killer! Season three could be about cults and the Gargoyle King! But those mysteries have increasingly little to do with the characters and their personalities. This means that as over-the-top and wild as the storylines theoretically are, the show itself has gotten a little bit boring.
In contrast, small-scale teen shows like Never Have I Ever are designed to follow the Donald Duck model of storytelling forever. Devi has the kind of personality that drives the story: She’s a believably impulsive kid who is plenty smart enough to see what her problems are but never quite smart enough to keep from escalating them. She doesn’t need to solve murders to be interesting. She’s already there. And that means Never Have I Ever doesn’t need to keep escalating its external conflicts. It just has to keep resolving its internal conflicts in ways that continue to push the story forward.
Toward the end of the season finale, Devi runs to her mother’s side to help spread her dad’s ashes. The moment works to resolve Devi’s conflict with her mother and her refusal to process her grief over her father; it’s a satisfying example of genuine character growth, and it’s incredibly cathartic to watch. But Devi’s end-season character growth doesn’t slam the door shut on more conflicts: The scene also leaves in place plenty of room for Devi and her mom to keep fighting and misunderstanding one another as they go forward.
Likewise, it’s fun and surprising when Devi kisses her frenemy Ben Gross after several episodes of buildup. But that romantic development isn’t a story killer. It just means that the pieces are now in place for a good old-fashioned love triangle in season two, and both of the boys Devi has to choose between are in a position to help explore interesting things about her character and theirs.
I don’t have any special knowledge of the future. I can’t say for sure that Never Have I Ever is going to have a good second season, or even that it will have a second season at all. But it’s much better equipped than plenty of its peers and predecessors to keep being good for a long, long time in the future.
All that said, I do have to agree with Kamala on Riverdale: “What’s so interesting about this show is everyone has different backgrounds, but they’re all hot.”
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.