When Mindy Kaling revealed that she was making a high school show about the strange experiences of NRIs, I was pretty pumped. I trust Mindy Kaling, and I have ever since The Office, to write stories that are funny and sentimental at the same time. Never Have I Ever is both. It revolves around Devi Vishwakumar, a 15 year old Tamil Indian-American high school girl played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who has made it her sole purpose to climb up the social ladder. After a terrible freshmen year (her father dying and her briefly becoming paralyzed waist down), she has chalked out a plan along with her two friends–Eleanor and Fabiola–which involves going to the raddest parties and dating socially influential, yet attainable, high school boys.
Does she succeed without hurting her mother and her sister and friends, and boys, along the way? Obviously not. Why else would the show even run then?
Where Never Have I Ever Wins
Where it wins is very obvious: its unique storytelling. The show’s creators, Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, took the concept of a high school rom-com, and desi-fied it. The struggles of the Indian diaspora are accurately punctuated with sharp jokes–like Devi’s mother believing that “therapy is for white people”–and the difficulty that young people face in straddling two identities. Devi is a thorough American; she loves eating meat and is heavily involved in American pop culture, but at the same time she carries the culture of an Indian society that is thousands of miles away. She prays to the Gods, but prays to get the hottest guy at school. She’s super smart and hardworking at school, but also wants to lay back and just be ‘normal’. Only to learn that ‘normal’ is a made up construct that doesn’t really exist.
But, Kaling and Fisher have taken the regular trope of high school romcoms and added textures to it that are super relatable. You can take Indians out of India, but you can’t take India out of Indians. The same familial care and pressures are there, the same hardworking nature is present, and the same concerns of arranged marriage and ‘log kya kahenge’ are very much present even among the diaspora. And they make cameos throughout Never Have I Ever. Interestingly, however, the characters are not ones we have seen often on TV: Devi’s mother, Dr Nalini, is a single one, and she is hard, persevering, and has little patience for nonsense. Different from other homely Indian mothers we have seen on TV, Dr Nalini spends little time on crying and melodrama.
Devi’s boyfriend dilemma, her past trauma and inability to talk about her father–whom she obviously love immensely–and her desire to divorce her family yet reconcile with them at the end, are what make her a unique character. Apart from that, the acting is done with finesse by everybody. Maitreyi is obviously very skilled for her age, Poorna internalises all her emotions, Darren Barnet brings a complexity to the typical ‘hot guy’ Paxton, and Jaren Lewinson starts out as Ben ‘Gross’, but reveals himself to be quite the sweetheart.
As for the show, the complicated mother-daughter relationship, the mature understanding of the philosophy behind arranged marriages and their evolution, the very real high school problems, are all what make Never Have I Ever relatable.
What Doesn’t Work
Okay, apart from the authentic desi diaspora experience, Never Have I Ever is ridden with this obsession towards representation–to the point where it almost feels like any race that is not white is fetishised. Devi’s two best friends come off as carefully tailored recipes of minority identities: Eleanor Wong is Asian-American but instead of being a math or science geek, she’s a theatre hippie. Fabiola is mixed race and a genius dork of sorts, and discovers her true sexuality through the course of the show. Devi’s arch-nemesis-turned-romantic interest, Ben Gross, is Jewish and makes sure to keep reminding us of it.
See, while it’s important to talk about race, and it helps nobody when people say that they “don’t see race,” it’s also important to normalise multiracial societies and existences. It’s 2020, which means the in-your-face racial overtones are a bit outdated. Also, they result in really awkward moments like this one:
Which brings me to my second point: the awkward, cringe-y dialogues and scenes. It’s full of cliched, stereotypical high school romcom events: a party at a rich kid’s house, attempts to impress the ‘cool guy’ while using her own friends to do so, and a self-destructive protagonist who acts impulsively and hurts everyone along the way, only to realise that she has been immature and selfish. The episodes seem like stories taken from every American high school show and movie, with an added NRI twist. First is the plan to transform from ‘uncool’ to ‘cool’, then is the attempt to have sex with the hottest guy at school, and finally revealing that the nicest people are hidden under pretentious, hard exteriors. Wow, like I’ve never seen that one before.
Here’s the thing: the more you try to make someone stand out because of their race, identity, and try too hard to disprove stereotypes that have been thrown at them, the more that you’re actually perpetuating the same stereotypes and cliches. These attempts are what make the characters predictable and dull, even. Fabiola is different in her studiousness, but it makes her actions predictable. Eleanor is your go-to drama queen and we know that she’s going to react dramatically/in some whacky fashion to every shocking, hurtful thing that Devi says. And Nalini, Devi’s mother, has to be stone-cold to deal with the trauma (or avoid doing dealing with it) of losing her husband and continuing her work and raising her difficult daughter alone. Except her stoic nature becomes a bit unbelievable at points. Only in the final episode do we see her let down her guard, which was a beautiful moment too.
Never Have I Ever is, in one word, super earnest. It earnestly tries to deal with a multiracial America, the Indian diaspora, high school problems, trauma and acceptance, millennial pressures on academia and sexuality, and also characters who almost purposely don’t fit into any box (phew!). Too much is forced into 8 episodes, which makes some of the characters and narratives come off as forced and unnatural.
One thing I’m confident about: Never Have I Ever been let down by Mindy Kaling, until now.
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