Never Have I Ever: The Many Conflicts of Indian-American Girlhood

“it’s hard to root for Devi when nine times out of ten, her trip-ups occur because of her persistent, unyielding belief that she is the victim”

Precious few female South Asian creatives have managed to establish a substantial foothold in Hollywood, and most prominent among them is perhaps The Office alum Mindy Kaling. Her reasonably successful romantic sitcom The Mindy Project ended after six seasons in 2017. Still, Kaling’s had no problems staying busy since then, starring in major studio releases A Wrinkle in Time (2018) and Ocean’s Eight (2018), writing and starring in critically praised comedy Late Night (2019), as well as writing, producing and occasionally appearing in the short-lived NBC series Champions (2018)

Kaling is back this spring with Never Have I Ever, a high-school-based coming-of-age series to air on Netflix. Created with Lang Fisher—a former Mindy Project writer—the show starts on a unique foot even before its first episode, simply by virtue of being a teen show on a major platform led by an Indian girl. 

In a world of Stranger Things and Riverdale, seeing a brown girl at the centre of all things is undoubtedly a novelty (which is disappointing in itself). As such, there’s a lot of unspoken pressure for Never Have I Ever to prove its worth. Do brown girls deserve to be at the centre of everything? Here are ten episodes for Kaling, Fisher and co. to make their case.

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Let’s get to the real questions right off the bat. Is the show good? No, it’s not. Is it bad? No, certainly not. It’s a very solidly average show after one evens out the positives and the negatives.

To start with, protagonist Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is, honestly speaking, not all that likeable. Everybody stumbles sometimes—as is the entire premise of coming-of-age media—but it’s hard to root for Devi when nine times out of ten, her trip-ups occur because of her persistent, unyielding belief that she is the victim, or that she’s unequivocally deserving of forgiveness no matter what she’s said or done. 

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Devi repeatedly lets her obsessive crush on resident king of jocks Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) steamroll everything and everyone throughout almost the entire series, including her best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young). As much as she expresses ~feeling bad~ about it when she’s called out, she never actually makes any real effort to do better.

Her rivalry with snarky overachiever Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) is entertaining enough, but even in scenes without Ben, there’s a stubborn undercurrent to her words and actions that hints she genuinely believes herself to be the smartest person in every room, which sort of takes the fun out of her long-standing competition with him. 

It doesn’t help that despite her efforts, Ramakrishnan is the weakest actor on the entire show. Moments, where a small smile or a mere eyebrow quirk could have done wonders, fall flat at her lack of intuitive emoting. She’s continuously outshone by her castmates, especially the excellently effusive Young as theatre nerd Eleanor. Young, in particular, makes a concerted effort to milk the dramatic most out of her lines. See for reference: a scene where Eleanor accuses the part-Japanese Paxton of being racist. Her ability to anchor her comedy in the utmost sincerity is entertaining as hell. 

It definitely doesn’t help that Devi’s best friends Eleanor and Fabiola are both more interesting than her. Eleanor has a short but lovely arc about her relationship with theatre and her mother (who left to pursue acting but is still a struggling unknown), and Fabiola’s endeavours in robotics and STEM, as well as her journey towards understanding her sexuality, deserve a whole Netflix series all on their own. 

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It’s obvious what the show is trying to do with Paxton. He’s initially presented as nothing more than a set of six-pack abs and a grin full of straight pearly-whites, but the more Devi gets to know him, the more she realizes he’s not just a pretty piece of meat. 

Unfortunately, Paxton is but a pale imitation of Sex Education’s Jackson. Kaling and Fisher’s attempts to emulate the surprisingly nuanced character (played by Kedar Williams-Stirling) fall flat at every turn, with no real or distinct personality traits surfacing for Paxton as the series goes on. The show might have done better, giving more thought to who Paxton was as a character in his own right instead of just as the object of Devi’s affections.

(Also, is swimming the new socially desirable sport of choice for teen heartthrobs? I mean, I’m glad we’ve all moved on from football and basketball, but come on.)

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Of course, the show isn’t without its strengths. Family is a theme that’s at the very core of the series, which begins with Devi losing her beloved father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy, putting in consistently heartwarming performances despite his limited screentime). Through a handful of brief but poignant flashbacks, Devi reluctantly but cathartically plumbs the depths of her heartbreak over the unexpected death of her father and discovers the real strength in being honest with oneself and accepting one’s pain. 

Poorna Jagannathan (Big Little Lies, The Night Of) turns in a strong performance as Devi’s recently widowed mother, Nalini, struggling to balance her demanding hours as a dermatologist and the stress of being thrust into single parenthood of a difficult teenager. It’s hard to articulate this fully, but South Asian mothers and daughters have very complicated relationships, influenced and underpinned by a myriad of issues, many of which have been passed down through generations and generations of brown women. Those issues become even more convoluted for a family-like Nalini and Devi’s—the former raised in India, the latter in the United States. 

Never Have I Ever tackles the tension between Nalini and Devi with admirable grit, delving deep into unresolved fears and resentment on both their parts and bringing it all full circle back to a core of raw, honest, unflinching love. Without a doubt, the show’s absolute best moments are when it’s focused on this mother-daughter relationship.

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One common problem that plagues popular YA shows is that teenaged characters rarely, if ever, actually look like teenagers. It’s a pleasing detail that Devi and her classmates all, without fail, effortlessly resemble their age throughout the series, from hair and makeup to wardrobe.

This is due in large part to the casting of younger actors for sure, but also to the hands working behind the camera. Major props to costume designer Salvador Pérez (a long-time favourite collaborator of Kaling’s) and hair department head Bia Iftikhar. It’s rare to see brown girls on TV with their natural thick, almost coarse waves on display without being smoothed to glossy death with hot tools. Even Ramakrishnan’s forearm fuzz has been left peacefully in place on her skin, and it’s a small detail, but one that makes this reviewer happy nonetheless. 

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There’s a lot for the show to work on if it does receive a second season order. The conflict of Devi’s two cultural identities enmeshing in one life, for example, was well discussed but far too nuanced for a single episode to cover entirely. Devi’s self-centred dramatics were sometimes overdone and repetitive, but a decent base for the all-encompassing nature of teenage self-actualization. 

The issue of colourism was paid no attention, mostly in the form of Devi’s older cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who moves in with Devi and her mother to pursue science at Caltech while dreading the arranged marriage her parents have contrived for her back home in India. Kamala (and Moorjani, of course) is also incredibly beautiful, a fact that is highlighted repeatedly throughout the series but—surprise, surprise—she’s the lightest-skinned brown woman in the entire series.

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However, the first season of Never Have I Ever does a credible job as a pioneer mass-media foray into brown girlhood. It can’t quite compete with the best of the best yet, but it’s certainly an entertaining, rewarding watch nevertheless. There’s a lot of room for the series and characters to grow and, hopefully, and even more importantly, open doors for more South Asian female creatives to tell their stories. 

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