By Lauren Colwell
“Never Have I Ever” is the new hit coming-of-age comedy series on Netflix, inspired by the childhood experiences of the show’s creator, Mindy Kaling. The show follows Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a modern first-generation Indian-American high school student. Devi attempts to navigate usual teenage problems, such as dating, friendship, and “being cool”, all while coping with her father’s untimely death and figuring out where she fits into her community. The protagonist doesn’t always handle this pressure gracefully, and can sometimes feel lost, be selfish, or fly off the handle.
Common themes of a teen rom-com can be found within the show, however it is done with a diverse cast that allows viewers to see stories that are uncommon in Hollywood. Netflix has proven that these stories are craved, since the show was the most viewed content on the streaming platform in multiple countries after being released. It also received a 96% freshness rating on review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The show has been praised for depicting the life of a modern Indian-American family while avoiding outdated stereotypes. Along with Devi, the story includes her demanding but caring mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and her “annoyingly” perfect cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). Jagannathan’s character explores what it is like to be a widow who is trying to raise her oftentimes challenging teenage daughter without having any family around for support. Kamala, an Indian woman pursuing her PhD in America, struggles with balancing her career goals and personal desires with her desire to please her family, who expect her to have an arranged marriage.
Each episode of the series shows a different aspect of Devi’s complicated life. Within a couple episodes, Devi gets drunk and is attacked by a coyote at a party, celebrates Ganesh Puja with her local Hindu association, and “starts a nuclear war” at a Model UN event. The Ganesh Puja episode displays Devi’s reluctance to fully accept and celebrate her culture. It also shows how other people’s expectations and perceptions interfere with this process. An argument with a judgmental college counsellor at the event leads to her line, “Some old loser was telling me that I’m too Indian. And some other people think I’m not Indian enough. And honestly, all I want to do is eat a donut.”
Kaling successfully pulls off a TV series that challenges representation issues while staying light-hearted and humorous most of the time. Her smart and quirky humor shines through and is reminiscent of her past work on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project”. Some of this unique humor includes the narrator of the show being tennis pro John McEnroe, who comments on and is invested in all of the teenage drama.
The show not only portrays Indian-Americans, but also people of different races, religions, and sexualities. Another storyline follows Devi’s best friend Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) as she discovers that she is gay and struggles to come out to her family. Many viewers relate to the way characters on the show handle tough situations. Viewers also relate to the way Devi and her family deal with the pain of losing a close loved one.
“Never Have I Ever” has been praised for the performance of lead actress and newcomer, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Kaling picked her out of 15,000 submissions in an open casting call on social media. When asked about her pick, Kaling told The New York Times, “… there was something about her… she had natural confidence. I really loved that she was Tamil, which I am also. Also, I think about colorism a lot, and I liked that she wasn’t like this red-haired, green-eyed, pale-skinned Indian girl. I liked that she looked a little bit more like someone that would be in my family. She also was just naturally funny.”
Amid all the praise, Kaling also received some criticism for how she portrayed South Asians. Some viewers felt that the show did not exactly reflect their experiences. Kaling responded to this in the same NYT article saying, “I’m just telling a story that resonates with me, of a very specific character…. I’d like to have a nice, long life so that I can tell enough stories with enough different kinds characters — Indian, Pakistani, Muslim, etc. — to show that there’s lots of different kinds of ways to be Desi.”
With the major success of “Never Have I Ever”, this show seems to only be the beginning of TV series and movies that will put the spotlight on South Asians and other groups of people who have long waited to have their stories told.
Lauren Colwell is a recent graduate of Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. She is a resident of Hicksville, New York