Mindy Kaling’s new coming-of-age teen dramedy for Netflix is a lovely look at the complexities of adolescent life.
Never Have I Ever, Netflix’s newest coming-of-age series, calls itself a comedy, but it’s really a bittersweet look at grief, family, culture, and friendship, wrapped in the shiny foil of a teen rom-com. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, the series revolves around Devi Vishwakumar (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) an Indian-American teenager dealing with the recent death of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) as she tries to forge a new sophomore-year identity.
Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is a busy doctor juggling her practice, her daughter, her grief, and the upcoming arranged marriage of her niece Kamala (Richa Shukla), a Ph.D. candidate who is staying with Devi and Nalini. At school, Devi is locked in a years-long battle with academic nemesis Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), a battle that exasperates their teachers and school administrators, and wanders at times into truly cruel territory.
Her best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young) are both excellent as supportive backup, with storylines that actually address a vital part of any friendship: when you’re the ones doing all the heavy lifting. At a certain point Devi has used up a lot of her friends’ goodwill, and it’s easy to understand their reactions, even as we sympathize with Devi.
And then there’s Paxton (Darren Barnet), the quintessential high school hot guy, a swimmer on whom Devi has harbored a long-term crush, and whom she asks to sleep with in a moment of “this is MY YEAR” boldness. This request and Paxton’s response, are the catalysts for the majority of the season’s plot points and are the most rom-com elements of the show. Paxton grows throughout the course of the series but does lapse into popular kid stereotype enough to grate just a bit.
Devi is struggling with her concept of her Indian identity (she’s stunned when an older friend, now in college, hasn’t completely thrown aside tradition now that he’s out of the house), and she’s jealous of Kamala, who on the surface is a perfect Indian lady.
Kamala’s beauty is a source of running gags that manage to remain fresh because 1. it’s true and 2. because Kamala is a fleshed-out character beyond it. Never Have I Ever has a number of these character gags (the “hip” teacher, the stoner best friend) that transcend the stereotypes, with only one (the “fat weird kid”) really falling flat. It’s 2020, maybe we can move beyond weight as a punchline.
And have I mentioned that all of this is narrated by Mohan’s favorite tennis player John McEnroe, in an inspired gimmick that both ties into Devi’s memories of her father and her unresolved anger issues. At the heart of all of this, as Devi’s therapist (Niecy Nash) tells her repeatedly, is that neither Devi nor Nalini have dealt with Mohan’s sudden death, which occurred at Devi’s spring concert the previous school year.
It’s really a bittersweet look at grief, family, culture, and friendship, wrapped in the shiny foil of a teen rom-com.
Devi can’t play her harp or see an ambulance without panicking, and Nalini struggles as the remaining parent, the taskmaster “bad cop” to Mohan’s sunny “good cop”. It’s clear that Devi and her father were very close while she and her mother were at odds, and they are failing to connect in the absence of Mohan.
Never Have I Ever’s teenage characters are a pleasant change from many of the drama-laden teen offerings out there. Riverdale, with its twists and turns and sexy shenanigans, is a plot point early on; unlike that example, there are no heroes or villains in Never Have I Ever. The teenagers are teenagers, who just want to record TikTok dance videos without their moms busting in and who most definitely do not want to hear their teachers say things like “Mass genocide is not litty”. “Can we please learn something that would be on an AP exam?” Ben begs Cool Teacher Mr. Shapiro (Adam Shapiro) when Shapiro gives them yet another “fun and unique” assignment. These kids just want to deal with their own issues and be left alone, but not too alone.
Never Have I Ever’s ten episodes are a wonderful time, funny and sweet and sad, and it ends with less of a cliffhanger than it does a promise. This one is a keeper.
Never Have I Ever premieres on Netflix on April 27th.