By: Ananya Donapati and Edward Simon Cruz
Never Have I Ever is a Netflix comedy series that was released on April 27 and was created by Mindy Kaling. It centers around the sophomore year of Devi Vishwakumar, who deals with her dad’s recent death and is recovering from being paralyzed for three months. Devi pines for Paxton Hall-Yoshida, a hot junior, while handling relationships with her archrival Ben Gross and her friends Eleanor and Fabiola. The show also explores Devi’s home life with her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala.
The show has represented a step forward in Hollywood representation. We decided to not just review the show but explore the role that culture plays within.
The show itself was a breath of fresh air for typical teenage portrayal; in the past we’ve seen shows on Disney, ABC, and other mainstream platforms where we see classic teenage dilemmas- but portrayed in either notoriously innocent ways or as overexaggerated mistakes. However, Netflix allowed for more relatable and engaging content, which pulled the viewer in. The language was more accurate, including a few pop culture references to TV shows and celebrities. It also uses vulgar language in instances you would expect it from teenagers.
What really made this show different from others was that it incorporated high schoolers from many walks of life. It took kids with single parents, kids that struggled with their identity, kids who seemed to have the perfect life. It showed that everyone faces their own demons and makes sure to portray each teenager differently.
In one episode, Devi’s classmate Ben threw a party for his sixteenth when his parents weren’t home . He himself didn’t want to have a party. He felt lonely, but the beauty of it was that while some people choose to drink, those who didn’t weren’t pressured. Everyone did their own thing. The show stresses that while teens make mistakes they still have their heads on their shoulders and can be trusted. The show, unlike most others, also tackled a unique set of story lines including dealing with grief ( family death), coming out, and unstable family dynamics. These qualities make the show truly aware, giving teenagers everywhere maybe just a piece that they can relate to. It handles classic teenage problems, while acknowledging deeper issues at the same time, and highlighting how teenagers go through so much in such a short amount of time. But, was an acknowledgement enough?
Never Had I Ever had a lot of good ideas, but it also rushed through many of them. Sometimes, the writers took ideas with great story potential and instead wrapped them up unspectacularly. For instance, the first episode briefly mentions that Devi was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. The story could’ve explored this, but when it’s revealed that Devi miraculously regained use of her legs when she tried running to her crush, it almost feels like a copout.
At the end of the day, however, this is a sitcom… and a quite enjoyable one at that. In spite of this sometimes uneven plotting, each character, not just Devi, has motivations and flaws that make them feel real. Never Have I Ever shined in its more tender moments, especially when the teenagers interacted with their parents. There are also many great moments showcasing the dynamic between different combinations of characters as their relationships evolved; I especially enjoyed watching archrivals Ben and Devi square off at a Model U.N. tournament (though I have no idea how realistic that scene was).
I loved the Model U.N tournament! It was nice to see the show actually going into high schoolers lives outside of friends and homework, and showing that teens actually have so much more on their plate. I did like seeing the relationships with her friends too, especially those with Devi’s family and with her cousin, Kamala (a CalTech student who is being set up by her parents in India for an arranged marriage). Although it is almost unheard of for a single Indian mom to be raising a kid and hosting a family member, I feel like the show breaks the stereotype that there must always be a male head that dominates the family. However, this isn’t completely ignored which was also refreshing to see, because in a later episode Devi’s mom speaks to how ill equipped she feels with this dynamic. I appreciated the cousin being a part of the story because it was very realistic, having the cousin come from India to pursue a higher education while staying with family.
Although these dynamics themselves were interesting, there were many expectations on my end that fell short. Before the show had been released, I had multiple conversations with friends and family about how we expected to see relatable situations for the first time. The show handled stereotypes well but was exaggerated to a point where it came off more as a disappointment for representation than hope. However, we have to understand that Mindy Kaling writes her shows with exaggeration, she purposefully made it comedic and borderline insane. However, for teenage Indian girls, hearing that they were finally going to have a show to relate to, and then realizing it is all a joke almost feels like a stab in the back. In some instances Devi makes sexual references around her mom which would never happen in nearly any family, she also refers to Kamala’s suitors as either “hot” or “uggos” openly voicing her opinions without a filter. While some families are more open with each other, and not every Indian family has the strict parent child dynamic, there are some cultural aspects that are universal which felt ignored. In fact, the only episode that spoke to me was the episode about Ganesh Pooja, which Devi is embarrassed to go to. Ganesh Pooja is held in late August every year in which people pray to the god Ganesh and celebrate his arrival. Different reigons celebrate it differently but normally, people go to each other’s houses and give each other blessings. Growing up, I would be embarrassed of walking around in neighborhoods dressed up, because of the fear that someone would see me. An instance like this actually happens to Devi which was cool to see. The best moment of the episode is when she talks to one of her friends who is now in college. He tells her that when people grow up everyone embraces their culture and he’s glad he has something that makes his identity- and she should too. For the first time in the entire show, it felt like a real eye opening moment that was relatable.
This show could have been any show, every teenager goes through a life crisis’. It could have featured anyone and still be a good show. But, Mindy Kaling had a big opportunity to reach a whole new group of people, and it feels like she missed the mark.
Yet part of what makes Never Have I Ever so remarkable is how unremarkable it is. Sure, it’s a story about Indian-Americans trying to balance being Indian and American, but in some ways, it’s just like other teenage rom-coms of days past — and that’s good. It spans those familiar themes of self-acceptance, regret, and the many forms of love, successfully lifting them to suit these characters in today’s world.
Mindy Kaling has said that she can’t tell everyone’s story, so she focuses on one. That story centers around a driven yet selfish and sometimes unlikable protagonist. Not everyone will see themselves in her, but do they have to?
Today, there’s more room for Asians in Hollywood than walking stereotypes, and a Freaks and Geeks-type show can expand beyond a cult following. Let’s ensure that the progress only continues from here. Let there be the day when we can watch a story like Devi’s and appreciate the characters, their backgrounds, their victories, and their shortcomings without giving one person that burden of representing an entire group of people. Only when more minority voices step up to the plate will we be able to say that everyone can see themselves represented on screen.