Growing up sucks.
These days, no one seems to understands this better than Netflix, who has sparked a resurgence of teenage coming-of-age stories on its streaming platform. Titles like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), The Fundamentals of Caring (2016), & Dumplin’ (2018) have achieved widespread critical and commercial success, all detailing the intricacies of young women struggling with identity and sex.
And that last point is rather revolutionary. Coming-of-age stories have historically been filtered through a male perspective. When sex is introduced within the story, it’s almost never discussed by teenage women, even though boys have been having on-screen sexual misadventures for as long as TV goes back. That’s why films like Ladybird (2017) and Booksmart (2019) are so refreshing.
Never Have I Ever enters this cultural conversation with an extra card to play: the exploration of South-East Asian culture on women coming of age and grief.
Eight months after her father’s untimely death, and after recovering from an inexplicable partial paralysis, Indian-American Devi (debut performer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) enters her sophomore year of high school. She is gifted, hardworking, impulsive and desperate for a male side-piece. Aided by best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), she is determined to lose her virginity to dreamboat classmate Paxton (Darren Barnet).
If that all sounds similar, it’s by design: the story borrows its narrative framework from countless high school stories before it. However, creator and writer Mindy Kaling sprinkles in enough unique elements to keep watchers engaged. For one, in an unexpectedly delightful twist, the entire series is narrated by John McCenroe playing himself. For another, grief and culture shock are explored through Devi’s home life, with strict mother Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan) forbidding her to engage in any unruly behavior all while mourning the death of her husband. Devi’s beautiful cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) is torn between western culture and an arranged marriage orchestrated by her Indian parents. In the series’ first great episode, the trio of Indian women attend a Ganesh Puja celebration while dressed in saris. The sex-crazed antics of Devi in early episodes gives way to a more complex exploration of how grief and culture impact our lives every single day.
Over the course of ten episodes, the series delicately juggles multiple tones: the quick, quip-based humor of a high school comedy, the slow character-building beats, and a melancholic exploration of Devi’s repressed grief manifesting in teenage rebellion.
Like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) before it, Never Have I Ever understands that sometimes the most important moments in life have a bizarre combination of joy and sorrow, of silly and bitter. As Devi watches her friends goof off in an amusing Instragram story, a phone notification reminds her of what would have been her late father’s birthday. In a second, the scene turns bittersweet: as Devi visibly holds back her mourning, the silly video is still playing and she can still hear her friends’ laughter. The series is chock-full of these tiny poignancies, when laughter in your lungs evaporates into a pang in your heart.
Never Have I Ever’s strength in nuanced depiction extends to its cast of characters. Within the first episode, each character is presented as a classic school archetype: Paxton, The Jock; Eleanor, The Drama Queen; Fabiola, the Robotics Nerd; Ben, the Try-Hard. Each character feels plucked from any high school set before it. Eleanour, for one, is initially presented more as a series of melodramatic line-readings played for laughs. But as the series progresses, Eleanour struggles with identity after learning her mother has been keeping a secret from her. Suddenly, her archetype takes a step forward.
In the show’s best chapter, Ben Gross, the initial villain, is given his own spin-off episode, complete with narration by Andy Samberg. It’s an uncommon move — to temporarily abandon the protagonist’s perspective in favor of a side character’s— but also a brilliant one. In the course of thirty minutes, Ben’s demeanor and personality are exhumed in heartbreaking detail. Suddenly his transgressions and name-calling lose some of their callousness. As the season barrels towards its endgame, Ben’s character arc has taken a fundamental shift in the eyes of the audience.
This empathy is the show’s greatest asset. Every time a character does something untoward, Never Have I Ever gently reminds the audience of their rationale and reasoning. Towards the middle of the season, when Devi is rude to her friends, we see through flashbacks that Devi is struggling with her father’s death. But this doesn’t forgive how her actions make Fabiola and Eleanor feel disregarded. Empathy, but not endorsement.
The show never allows its characters to fit into the mold defined by their race, even though it explores the ramifications of their race in their life. Devi is in the orchestra, yes, but she plays harp, not violin or piano. Devi’s community’s religious leader Raj chants hymns and lights incense, but he also stops by Home Depot to pick up some materials for an at-home project. Kamala is in the process of an arranged marriage, but she struggles with her boyfriend she met at school. Every cultural difficulty is handled with grace and care, fully allowing the audience to understand a community they may not understand. This may be a watershed moment for South-East Asian representation in America.
Never Have I Ever doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel. It takes the wheel and hands it to underrepresented communities like Indian-Americans. For those audience members who can see a part of themselves depicted onscreen, it can be revolutionary.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix.