"Never Have I Ever" been this impressed by a Netflix original

May 25, 2020, 3:01 p.m. | By Shifra Dayak | 3 years, 6 months ago

The show is a touching and comedic milestone for South Asian representation

As people all over the country stay home and try to entertain themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, several Netflix original shows have made the headlines, from "Tiger King" to "Money Heist." But none of them have been as unique and emotional as Mindy Kaling’s "Never Have I Ever," starring 18-year-old Canadian newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. The series follows Devi Vishwakumar, a high-schooler in the San Fernando Valley as she navigates school pressure, family problems and crushes. 

As Devi struggles to untangle her feelings after her father's sudden death, which took place a year before the show’s timeline, she is also faced with a host of other common teenage issues — feeling disconnected from her Indian culture, trying to get the attention of popular jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and competing with her academic rival Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison).

Meanwhile, her friends and family navigate their own worries. Robotics enthusiast Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) worries about how to come out to her family; eccentric theater kid Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) misses her mom, who left her family to pursue acting; Ben wonders why his parents are more invested in their careers than in raising him and Devi's cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) juggles a secret relationship with prospects of an arranged marriage. 

Until now, South Asians haven't gotten much in the way of media representation — most shows or movies that feature Indian or Indian-American characters reinforce unfortunate stereotypes of socially-awkward nerds or clueless immigrants. "Never Have I Ever" stands out, especially to me and other Indian-American teens who have waited for our multifaceted identities to be mirrored in mainstream pop culture. Devi is a well-written, three-dimensional character whose identity goes beyond an obsession with academics or an inability to socialize with boys. Sure, she does an appalling number of extracurriculars and is expected to get into Princeton, but she also goes to parties and doesn't hesitate to stand up for herself.  

"Never Have I Ever" is a relatable glimpse into the life of an Indian-American teen navigating life (courtesy of 3 Arts Entertainment)

"Never Have I Ever" is especially notable for how it addresses topics like whitewashing. Although Devi is initially unlikable for her unwillingness to embrace her heritage, her struggle is one that is often relatable, especially for first-generation individuals who simultaneously don't feel Indian enough or American enough. Fortunately, the fourth episode, titled "Never Have I Ever felt super Indian," features guest characters who remind Devi of the importance of staying connected to her background.

In each of the 10 episodes, the series breaks barriers in multiple areas. Devi's frequent therapy sessions, which are smoothly integrated into the plot, normalize maintaining positive mental health. The portrayal of Devi's mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), a successful dermatologist, breaks the stereotype that women must choose between a career or family. Kamala's eventual decision to get to know the husband her family finds for her dispels misconceptions that arranged marriages are always forced and uncomfortable. In the fourth episode, the directors share several nuances of Indian culture, from vibrant portrayals of Ganesh Puja, a Hindu festival, to explanations of the many different religions in India.  

Refreshingly, "Never Have I Ever" also joins the increasing ranks of works that are positive about teen relationships and sexuality, portraying Devi and her friends' curiosity as normal and handling it without (too much) awkwardness. Occasional jokes — like the quip, "Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you, but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcoming" — keep the audience laughing while simultaneously making the show thought-provoking and relatable.  

As with any teen sitcom, there are some downfalls in the show's writing. The biggest one is the fact that tennis champion John McEnroe narrates Devi's thoughts, although he doesn't have much of a connection to the series besides a couple ultra-scripted appearances. Additionally, although the last episode is emotional, the conclusion seems rushed. Devi's redemption arc from her initially argumentative, cutting personality is hastily shoved into a quick concluding scene, leaving viewers wanting more. While the choice makes sense for a show that is looking to be renewed, it doesn't do Devi's character development justice. 

However, as far as its discussion of serious topics coupled with subtle humor, the show is a winner. The plot may not be incredibly mind-blowing, nor are the directors' choices groundbreaking, but "Never Have I Ever" is a milestone for South Asian representation on the big screen. Its combination of convincing acting, a catchy soundtrack and relevant subject matter provide one-of-a-kind entertainment and high hopes for a second season.  

Last updated: May 25, 2020, 3:05 p.m.

Shifra Dayak. Hi, I'm Shifra! If I'm not writing articles or doing homework, I'm probably making music, browsing through dog pictures, eating Thai food, or napping. More »

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