TV TATTLE

Never Have I Ever is a delightful comedy that makes its protagonist's Indianness a vital part of the show

  • "There are so many pleasures in this series, none of which would work if Devi weren’t such a delightful protagonist, an ideal mixture of understandably selfish, self-blind, legitimately funny, fundamentally good, and deeply caring," says Kathryn VanArendonk of the Netflix teen comedy starring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan that Mindy Kaling co-created with Lang Fisher. VanArendonk adds: "Devi’s Indianness is a vital part of the show, both in the way it shapes Devi’s story and in the way Never Have I Ever plays into the rom-com genre. Being Indian affects almost every aspect of Devi’s life: It feeds into her mother’s expectations, it’s why her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) lives in their house, it means Devi has to attend long, boring Indian holiday celebrations she’d rather skip, and it changes the way Devi and her mother deal with the grief they’re both trying to grapple with. It makes Never Have I Ever purposely, happily different from the previous white-kids-in-a-white-neighborhood teen rom-com default. It is a defining, all-pervasive facet of what this show is. But Never Have I Ever also treats the fact that Devi comes from an Indian-American family with a giant, somewhat bored, perfectly teenage eye roll. Her heritage makes her different from her friends, yes, but ugh, fine, it’s whatever, can we just move on? Of course she can’t." In fact, Never Have I Ever is reminiscent of Jane the Virgin. "Like Jane, this show foregrounds the heroine’s immigrant culture, and there are obvious parallels between the young men who become Never Have I Ever’s two love interests and the long-simmering tension between Team Rafael and Team Michael," says VanArendonk. "But more broadly, the two shows share a common aesthetic, a fizzy combination of a slightly heightened fictional world that’s grounded in insistently realistic emotions. Never Have I Ever is less mannered than Jane, less focused on playfully self-aware storytelling. Its heightened world is comparatively low key: Where Jane often indulged in total fairy-tale wish fulfillment, Never Have I Ever sticks to teens with unusually good skin and some patently unlikely story lines. The overall impression is the same — real emotions, set inside a world that’s just a little brighter."

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    • Never Have I Ever isn’t nearly as funny as Mindy Kaling’s other work -- it’s also not trying to be: "There’s still plenty of humor to be found in Devi’s adolescence — particularly in a device that finds the story narrated by, of all people, tennis legend John McEnroe — but it’s a far more straightforward and heartfelt coming-of-age tale," says Alan Sepinwall. "In the past, if there was a choice in a scene between a good joke or an emotionally honest moment, Kaling tended to choose the joke. Here, she and (co-creator Lang) Fisher aim for what’s real. It’s pleasantly surprising, and very satisfying to watch throughout." Sepinwall adds: "It’s a very kind, warm, smart show to visit, and each half-hour episode breezed right by. In one, Devi winds up in a swimming pool at the end of a humiliating night. This also happened to Mindy Lahiri once. There, it was played entirely for laughs; here, it’s much more emotionally fraught. That’s because Never Have I Ever has decided that what it wants most is to make its young heroine seem like a three-dimensional person who can do ridiculous things, but who you ultimately are just rooting for. That can be a harder thing to pull off, especially with a character making the kinds of mistakes that are possible when you’re so young and naive. But the rewards can feel even more satisfying than a big laugh."
    • Girls like Devi, while not unheard of in the sex comedy cinematic world, are rarely at the center of it: "I'm not just talking about the overwhelming whiteness of the genre, but the specific type of girl who gets chased or who even gets featured," says Melanie McFarland. "Which is to say, girls like Devi are rarely if ever seen in these movies. Even when they're the lead of a romantic comedy, they're portrayed as unconventionally quirky wallflowers, interesting for reasons having nothing to with their GPA. This Molly Ringwald type pines away silently for a boy, hoping he'll notice her, sometimes attracting attention she doesn't want. Maybe he eventually does notice her. Or maybe she ends up with the Duckie, a dude who is on her social level who she's otherwise friend-zoned. If and when that happens, the audience is generally made to understand that the pair are probably going to start things slow. Leap to the other end of the spectrum and you'll find Alyson Hannigan's character in American Pie, the band-camp-obsessed geek who is the hero's prom date of last resort, and who ends up being the most sexually experienced and aggressive one in school – which, naturally, plays as a joke because who'd have thought it? She's such an un(blank)able geek. Each of these character types were brought to us by men, by the way. In Devi, Kaling and her co-creator Lang Fisher answer these longstanding tropes with a realistic teen girl who isn't popular but doesn't shrink inside of herself either. Devi is exceedingly normcore with a touch of unhinged behavior to keep everyone on their toes; her lack of predictability makes her charming to her too-hot quarry, and his lack of perceptiveness makes him unable to recognize that this weird girl who keeps coming around is in fact suffering."
    • Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is so good in the part that the show’s baffling decision to have her life narrated by John McEnroe quickly becomes downright frustrating: "McEnroe’s flat affect doesn’t have half the spark that Devi does...Devi’s story doesn’t need a gimmick like McEnroe in order to stand out," says Caroline Framke, adding: "Never Have I Ever is far from the first time a Kaling production has tried to take preexisting tropes and filter them through a more unique lens (see: rom-coms The Mindy Project and Four Weddings and a Funeral). But it does feel the most immediately sure of itself and what it can offer that other shows in its genre didn’t — and/or, thanks to more monochromatic casts and perspectives, couldn’t. With enough self-awareness and empathetic acting to ground and elevate it, Never Have I Ever makes for a smart, refreshing, and frankly overdue change of pace."
    • Never Have I Ever improves greatly after the first half of the season that'll give The Mindy Project fans PTSD flashbacks: "The overpacked clunkiness of that first half-hour — really, the first half of Never Have I Ever's 10-episode debut season — might give some Kaling loyalists PTSD flashbacks to The Mindy Project, a groundbreaking sitcom that regularly asked its starved-for-representation viewership to overlook bizarre turns, tonal ungainliness and a chronic squandering of promising characters and castmembers," says Inkoo Kang. "Never Have I Ever also shares with that earlier series a bratty Indian American protagonist, an insult-spewing dark-horse love interest and a conspicuous lack of interest in exploring female friendships. The great joy and relief of Never Have I Ever is that, at least in the latter half of its first season, the series streamlines into a deeply moving exploration of a teenage girl falling apart because she can't bear to deal with her grief."
    • Devi’s character offers a far more nuanced depiction of what it means to be a young girl of color than audiences are accustomed to seeing onscreen: "She’s at the top of her class, with hopes of attending Princeton University, but also boy crazy," says Anna Purna Kambhampaty. "She’s in the school orchestra, but sneaks out to go to parties. She attends the Hindu festival Ganesh Puja, but regularly gets called into the principal’s office at school. Her character doesn’t just break the stereotype of the rule-abiding Indian girl, it also breaks the stereotypes of the brainless, boy-crazed valley girl, the undesirable nerd and more. The show manages all this without erasing Devi’s Indian heritage. She has an Indian name (which becomes a point of ridicule when her nemesis insists on calling her 'David'), prays to Hindu gods and eats dosas with her family."
    • Creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher have written a show full of characters who love to take left turns: "This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Devi's inner life is narrated by professional tennis' most notable bad boy, John McEnroe," says Krutika Mallikarjuna. "The unusual choice begins to make sense as Devi applies her overachiever energy not just toward dominating academics (as expected), but also toward scheduling Google Calendar events for sex, stealing enough alcohol to get the entire model UN drunk, and running away from home. The stereotype that Devi could be on another show — another smart, sarcastic teen struggling to understand her identity — falls away to reveal a passionate young woman who commits to her bad decisions with just as much fervor as she commits to good ones. As lost as she is, Devi can only really seem to be herself."
    • Never Have I Ever is a teen "traumedy" that immediately stands out from other coming-of-age comedies in its approach to trauma and processing grief: "The series shines brightest in its ability to blend comedy and tragedy, giving an audience more depth than shows about teenagers that don’t investigate the motivations or rational behind 'kids just being kids,' or show what it’s like to live with suffering, not just experience it for an episode," says Samantha Grasso. "We see Devi throwing herself into complicated situations and failing (or unwilling!) to identify the source of her pain, insisting that she is Over It and retaliating against her therapist, the thoughtful Niecy Nash. Never Have I Ever follows after great female-led traumedies like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fleabag, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, giving the genre a larger voice for young adults and women of color. In a culture that’s begun to place a greater emphasis on identity and how it isn’t defined by our experiences alone, it’s nice to watch something that ruminates on what these experiences mean for us."
    • John McEnroe was as surprised as anyone when Kaling first approached him with the idea of doing the show: “At the time it was like, ‘What? Okay, sounds like something that would be different,’” he recalled of the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscars party encounter. McEnroe thinks Kaling came up with the idea because her parents—like Devi’s deceased father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy)—were fans of his, though he and Kaling never discussed that. He ultimately signed on because the idea seemed “cool,” and would work “because my voice is sort of unique.”
    • How 18-year-old inexperienced Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was discovered out of 15,000 hopefuls: “She’s a real star; she sells the whole thing,” co-creator Lang Fisher says of Ramakrishnan. “You can teach someone to act, but you really can't teach someone to be funny. And we just needed someone who really got a freshness to the role, because this kid has such an attitude and has to be lovable while being selfish.”
    • Ramakrishnan recalls learning of the Mindy Kaling Netflix show casting call: “My best friend was the one who actually saw the tweet and she screenshotted it and sent it to me,” says Ramakrishnan. “I’m lying on my couch, ready to take a nice afternoon nap. … I remember feeling exhausted, but I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ just because I honestly only wanted to hang out with my best friend.”
    • Ramakrishnan says Devi isn't just inspired by Kaling: “It’s loosely based on (Kaling’s) life, as well as Lang Fisher’s. The experiences that they both shared together went into Devi’s character,” she says. “So within Devi, there’s Lang, there’s Mindy, but then there’s also me. So it’s a mix that then creates something that so many people are gonna relate to all over the world.”
    • Ramakrishnan has always felt a kinship with Kaling: “I just didn’t think it would ever happen," she says. "This is my first job. Not even just my first acting job, but my first job period and Mindy Kaling is my boss." In fact, during her audition with Kaling, Ramakrishnan felt the need to drop The Office references. “I was like, ‘What am I going to lose?’” she recalls thinking during the audition. “I need to just say this right now because I will never see her again. Yeah, joke’s on me.”
    • Ramakrishnan wants to subvert what audiences expect of a nerdy character: “She’s (Devi) is a nerd but she’s not some weird loner who has no friends” she says. “Give the character a goddamn best friend!” Ramakrishnan adds: “We’ve seen that story of the ordinary girl next door who hooks up with the hot guy…but in this story, in the first episode this girl says, ‘Hey, can we have sex?'”
    • Mindy Kaling says assembling a writers' room of young Indian-American women changed her outlook on Never Have I Ever: "It ended up being very cathartic, actually," she says. "It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone."
    • Kaling wanted Never Have I Ever to be a love letter to nerdy girls of color: “That’s what’s so puzzling to me because you don't see nerds of color on TV. But that is exactly what (highs school) was like," she says. "My Asian American and African American friends were nerds. There's been so many white creators who've done these indelible images of nerds. Think of the Superbad poster. But I was looking at most of the kids in all my honors and AP classes (who were) of color, but we haven't seen them.”
    • Kaling insisted on doing a show revolving around teens of today: "Netflix was open to us doing it as something set in the ’80s or the ’90s, but I’d seen that done so well with shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Everybody Hates Chris," she says. "I really wanted to speak to kids now. I also thought it would be a really great way to hire a lot of young Indian-American writers who can remember their teenage years more recently than me and fill our staff with them. I was also really greedy with the young actresses on the show. Maitreyi was a resource in herself. When she would do table reads, we would change the vernacular so it made sense for someone her age."

    TOPICS: Never Have I Ever, Netflix, Jane the Virgin, The Mindy Project, Lang Fisher, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Mindy Kaling, Indian-Americans and TV, Teen TV




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