We all know how hard it is to be a teen.
After classic John Hughes movies and Disney Channel original shows, it has been established that teenage angst and adolescent awkwardness would always be a sweet spot for viewers of all ages. But Netflix is giving the teenage experience a new spin these days. With movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and shows like On My Block, the streaming platform has been giving us a peek into the experience of growing up as a minority in contemporary America, and Mindy Kaling’s newest comedy teen show Never Have I Ever has officially joined the ranks.
Never Have I Ever follows Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first-generation Indian American teen and her plan to finally get a boyfriend in her sophomore year of high school. Sounds like an easy plan, right? But throw in some personal trauma, her exploration of her identity as an Indian American, a seemingly fruitless crush, a petty high school rivalry and some wonderful but sometimes clueless best friends, Devi’s plan might backfire so so bad, but it provides for a wholesome story about teenage angst, first love, beautiful friendships and family relationships.
Mindy Kaling‘s image as an actress often makes people forget what a good writer she is. The show, created by Kaling and Lang Fisher is so snappy, the comedy is so fresh and I burned through the 10 episode series so fast. I’ve not had this much fun while watching a show in recent times. But then I also realized why, the show made me genuinely happy, a strange intrinsic joy in looking at this Tamil, Indian girl walk around and do normal things and have normal teenage problems. Those of us who grew up in the various countries of the vast South Asian community and diaspora are often connected by experience if not our exact identity, and there’s something so beautiful about a show that reminds me both of how similar and different I am to this 15-year-old (or I was, thinking back to 15-years-old me growing up in Sri Lanka).
Devi is a delight to watch. She’s angry and rude at times, but also kind and understanding. She’s ridiculously funny – especially when she tries to walk in heels in an attempt to reinvent herself – and the show isn’t afraid to poke fun at its protagonist… but never at the cost of her identity. It shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise to me, but you know how easy it would have been to have a bunch of racist high school bullies make her life hard and center all the drama around them and call it a day?
In the first episode of the show, Devi confronts her arch-nemesis Ben about how he calls her and her best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young) “the U.N.”, a term that Devi calls racist. Ben looks surprised – not defensive, makes a lot of difference – and reveals that the UN doesn’t denote United Nations (as Devi assumes) but rather “Unfuckable Nerds.” Now an insult is an insult, and Ben is still horrible, but there is a twisted relief in knowing that the character is being mean, but not racist. The show understands the nuances on microaggressions, but doesn’t dwell on it for long. Devi’s identity is an integral part of her journey, but it isn’t the axis that the plot or tension revolves around.
While Devi’s romantic and high school life looms around in the background, in the crux of the show is her relationship with her mother. Once again, it would have been easy to portray Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) as insensitive or semi antagonistic, but instead, we get a grieving wife and mother who is trying to keep her family intact after her husband’s untimely demise. There’s a desperation to her character, whether it be in attempting to be faithful to her culture or trying to instill the values in Devi, but even when Devi retaliates, the show never writes off Nalini as forceful in her attempts. The mother and daughter often misunderstand each other, but there’s so much love, so much shared pain that eventually bonds the duo no matter their differences.
The rest of the cast is so diverse, wonderfully fleshed out, and equally delightful. Eleanor and Fabi – Devi’s best friends – are so loyal and supportive yet aren’t afraid to call on her bullshit when she deserves it. Kamala (Richa Moorjani), Devi’s PhD student cousin from India, has her own thread of love and marriage going on in the backdrop and while I have my qualms with western media portrayals of South Asian arranged marriages, the way Kamala’s story was juxtaposed with Devi’s own love drama was so brilliant and illuminating.
The show isn’t perfect, it does fall into some teen rom-com cliches – but why not? Why not have a perfectly cliche and fun rom-com with an Indian lead? – and it might not be relatable to every Indian or South Asian, but I think after years of waiting to watch a mainstream show or movie where a South Asian’s teen’s highs and lows are so normalized, Never Have I Ever is not just a breath of fresh air, it’s also such an important step.
The South Asian community is so vast and so diverse, we are never all going to relate to one another in the exact same way, and for now, I am filled with joy and satisfaction after witnessing a very specific and individual story of a Indian American teen growing up in California suburb, and hoping that Devi’s story paves the path for many many more.