The show puts an Indian-American teen at the centre, pushing past generations of stories that have placed white protagonists in the spotlight.

Never Have I Ever review Familiar tropes evolve into more in Mindy Kalings new show
Flix OTT Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 16:33
Worth a watch

There’s a formula when it comes to classic teen rom-coms — a girl, a boy, best friends, overbearing parents, school. The best versions of these stories draw us in with tropes (because who doesn’t love a good rom-com) but keep us hooked for something much more. 

For teen stories, the task becomes harder because we’re wired to dismiss their problems as ‘angst’ and move on with our day. But beyond the crushes and homework and screaming matches, it’s ultimately a kid in crisis, hoping to be taken seriously in a world where the adults are talking. 

Netflix released the first 10-episode season of Never Have I Ever this week, a new series from actor and comedian Mindy Kaling and writer-producer Lang Fisher, about a 15-year-old Indian-American girl named Devi Vishwakumar (played by Tamil-Canadian actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) in the San Fernando Valley in California. The episodes were directed by Tristram Shapeero, Kabir Akhtar, Linda Mendoza and Anu Valia. 

When we meet Devi, she really really wants a boyfriend and also to be cool and also to have sex, specifically with Paxton Hall Yoshida (A+ hot guy name), played by Darren Barnet. But we also quickly find out that her father Mohan died during a school concert, she lost the use of her legs for three months after the tragedy, and now, as she heads back for another year of high school, she’s hoping that those facts don’t completely colour the way people see her (spoiler: they do).   

With Devi, the show looks to put an Indian-American teen at the centre of the series, pushing past generations of stories that have placed white protagonists in the spotlight while a carousel of diverse characters merely serve as scenery. It’s also reinforced by the stories of her best friends, Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), and her arch-nemesis Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), who have their own journeys around family and sexual identity. However, since all the main characters are rich, suburban teens, notions of economic hardship are mute.

And while Devi’s Indianness is a part of her character, it is neither her entire identity nor the central storyline of the show. Family dinners can be tacos on one night and masala dosas the next, without any tiresome hand-wringing over heritage and culture. The show lets Devi be an average American teenager, who also happens to be Indian. 

However, Never Have I Ever does fall into some stereotypes in its treatment of Indian-origin characters. Take Kamala (a delightful Richa Moorjani), Devi’s older cousin who is doing her PhD and lives in Devi’s home. Kamala’s battles revolve around arranged marriages, secret boyfriends and playing the respectful, dutiful daughter to appease her parents back in India. She often feels boxed into an idea of Indianness, from which she must “break free.”

But once you get past that (and the first episode, which is a bit of a slog), it’s a heartwarming show that’s often light, frothy, and sharply-written (look out for the amazing burn on ‘Indian aunties’ in episode 4), but can quickly pivot into deeper places where grief, anger and pain can’t be ignored. Fans of Jane the Virgin will appreciate the weirdly pitch-perfect narration by tennis star John McEnroe, and another surprise narrator in the middle of the series. It also would be wrong to leave out the performance by Poorna Jagannathan as Devi’s mother, Dr Nalini Vishwakumar, who has the hard task of being in the funniest as well as some of the most upsetting moments of the series. 

Without giving away too much, the show’s emotional journey eventually leads us back to rom-com central, where we’re left with a familiar warm feeling as the credits roll. I probably didn’t realise how much I needed a good rom-com until I reached the end of Never Have I Ever. And honestly, I want more of it.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.
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