By ANASTASIA ZOLOTOVA
Published May 27, 2020
Buckle up your seat belts, kids. It’s time for me to take you into a deep dive of one of the newest and most slept-on shows in the cinematic black hole that is Netflix: “Never Have I Ever.”
Loosely based on the life of actress Mindy Kaling, “Never Have I Ever” follows the life of a 15-year-old Indian American girl, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), as she navigates her sophomore year and the recent death of her father. After a rocky freshman year, Devi is determined to finally have a normal high school experience–and that starts with getting a boyfriend.
Written and directed by Kaling herself, “Never Have I Ever” has been praised by many as a milestone in South Asian representation in Hollywood. It’s also a deeply honest portrayal of a first-generation American teenager’s struggle with identity–one I’m familiar with. (On more than one occasion my Russian mom has told me, half-jokingly, that I’m “obnoxiously American.”)
The show has an exceptionally strange narrator: 61-year-old tennis legend John McEnroe. You would think that his narration and the many montages of McEnroe’s wins and failures on the tennis court wouldn’t fit Devi’s story at all–that it’d be too bizarre and would distract from the story–but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, his narration ends up being one of the most memorable parts of the show. It’s just another way that “Never Have I Ever” breaks the stereotypical teenage dramedy mold.
One of the most refreshing parts of the show is the protagonist herself. Devi is exceedingly selfish. She’s rude to her mother and at times almost cruel. She’s obsessed with becoming popular and getting the hottest guy in school, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnett), to be her boyfriend. She constantly feels inferior to her beautiful, seemingly perfect cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). In a nutshell, Devi is a sometimes uncomfortably realistic example of a teenager, especially a teenage girl. The show doesn’t gloss over her flaws and shortcomings, but instead thrusts them to the foreground. And in today’s media landscape, there are far too many shows that portray teenagers in a highly unrealistic and cringey way (ahem, looking at you, “Riverdale”).
“Never Have I Ever” deals with being a teenager in a funny and heartfelt way. There’s stress over academics and getting into college, figuring out one’s sexuality, navigating relationships with one’s parents and dealing with grief. And while, yes, one of Devi’s objectives is getting a boyfriend, it’s more than another silly teenage show: The main love stories are about Devi and her dad, her best friends and her mom–which is the love that requires the most healing (with some help from Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash), the sassy and down-to-earth therapist we all wish we had).
At its simplest, “Never Have I Ever” is about teenagers. It examines high school’s ugly side that we’re all too familiar with: the superficiality, the insecurities and the age-old struggle of figuring out who you are.