The culture clash at the center of the new Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever is set up in its very first moments: Devi Vishwakumar (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a young, first-generation Indian-American girl about to enter her sophomore year of high school kneels to pray in front of the Hindu shrine in her home. And what she's praying for is to be invited to a high-school party where there's drinking and hard drugs (so she can coolly decline) and to have a hot, non-AP-class boyfriend who "can rock me all night long."
If you've ever been a teenager, you know that the world of high school social politics and personal development can be a real jungle. The un-glamorous coming of age that happens during those high-school years has inspired countless movies and TV shows, perhaps nowhere more so than on Netflix. With Never Have I Ever, the streamer adds to its teen-series repertoire (which includes dramedies like Sex Education and soaps like Elite) with a show that may well be its best pure sitcom since the heyday of Kimmy Schmidt. And if you're looking for something satisfying and delightful in crummy circumstances, it couldn't be coming at a better time.
Executive produced by Mindy Kaling, and created and written by Lang Fisher, Never Have I Ever plays in the same sandbox as recent hits like Booksmart. Devi is an unapologetic high-achiever who's not exactly an outcast, but is still pressed up against the window of whatever happens at the cool-kid parties that she longs to go to. She has best friends Fabiola and Eleanor (Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young), a bitter academic rival in Ben (Jaren Lewison), and a rockin' crush on perfect high-school dreamboat Paxton (Darren Barnet). And while most recent high-school shows have mellowed on the extreme jocks-v-nerds setup in favor of more nuanced and complicated social dynamics, Devi is rather singularly notorious among her classmates: her father (played by Heroes' Sendhil Ramamurthy in flashbacks) died of a heart attack a year ago while Devi was on stage at a music recital, and the shock of the ordeal temporarily paralyzed Devi, leaving her in a wheelchair for weeks. Now she's living at home with her traditional, controlling mom (Poorna Jagannathan) and her picture-perfect cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), trying to juggle her mother's cultural hangups with the social politics at school.
What makes Never Have I Ever work so well is its specificity. Devi isn't just a collection of first-generation overachiever tropes and nerd-girl anxieties (though she has elements of both). She's also stubborn, spiky, and cluelessly headstrong in a way only teenagers can be. She ends up complicating her life just as much as her circumstances do. Her relationship with her mom is combative, she's openly resentful of her cousin, and she can be selfish with her friends. She's also incredibly vulnerable when it comes her dad, and her lust-forward pursuit of Paxton takes some interesting twists and turns. Fisher and the show's writers aren't afraid to push characters in unexpected directions and play out the messy consequences of teenage impulses, but at the same time there is lot of obvious affection for these kids (and, in the case of Devi's mom, their parents).
There's also a confidence at play in Never Have I Ever that allows the show to take detours into the lives of side characters or, say, hand narration duties to a legendary American tennis brat. Yes, in fact that is John McEnroe stepping in as a celebrity narrator, in a flashy bit of oddball comedy that sounds more distracting than it actually is. Alhough as far as guest stars go, McEnroe can't hold a candle to Niecy Nash as Devi's therapist.
The show's other great strength is the sharpness of its comedy. The jokes are funny without sacrificing the show's essential sweetness, and the references are on point without feeling desperate for relevance. Like the best comedies, Never Have I Ever boasts a deep affection for its characters (something that it breezily passes on to the audience), which makes it easy to stick with them through cringe-worthy humiliations and some affecting twists and turns. The cast plays a big part in earning that affection, with newcomer Ramakrishnan's winning performance as Devi at the center. Particular attention must also be paid to Jagannathan as Devi's strict but sympathetic mom, and Lewison, whose initially loathsome Ben gets one of the first season's most satisfying arcs.
There is something deeply comforting about watching a well-executed teen comedy that feels neither desperate nor overly didactic in its multicultural approach. There's a genuine sparkle to Never Have I Ever that doesn't fade, even as the show deals with Devi's grief and frustration. It's hard to imagine a better time to have such a show drop into our lives.
Never Have I Ever 's ten-episode first season drops today on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.