TV Review: Never Have I Ever

At one point during Mindy Kaling’s new comedy, Never Have I Ever, cousin Kamala inquires of main character Devi regarding the television program Riverdale. She appropriately asks, “These are high schoolers? And their parents are okay with them taking showers together in their homes?” That the show can exhibit self awareness of the tropes that plague teenage serials is a good sign out the gate but to cover the common topics pertaining to adolescence while keeping it’s finger on the pulse of the issues that relate to the South Asian and just overall immigrant experience makes Never Have I Ever an unique and important delight.

The foundation of the show’s success is its well formed and diverse characters, starting with Devi Vishwakumar. Devi, played by newcomer and breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is precocious, hot-headed, and ambitious making her especially enjoyable to watch as she attempts to elevate her social standing and reputation to distract her from the bigger conflict of coming to terms with the recent and sudden passing of her father Mohan (played by Sendhil Ramamurthy). Devi’s pursuit of self determination beyond the imposed identity of a temporarily paralyzed Indian nerd serves as the show’s way to explore typical teenage topics, from approval on social media, to drinking and partying with the cool kids, to having sex with the hottest guy in the school. Where the show succeeds is in showing Devi’s failures within those areas, whether it’s getting drunk enough at a party to get mawled by a coyote (in her defense she thought it was her Dad reincarnated), or nervously bailing out of her first sexual experience, only to go home and tackle the issue as she would any other problem: doing a group study session with her best friends (it’s worth noting her second attempt still wasn’t super successful). These hilarious mishaps are what make Devi extremely relatable and human, and make her gradual success only that much more triumphant, even if that success further distances her from those who are most important in her life and distracts her from the bigger issues. This is all centered in the underlying tension of the first generation experience: not being able to define your identity beyond what other’s may say or demand of you. Additionally, this tension is dealt with in some way by periphery characters such as her friends and cousins: Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) wrestles with coming out to her parents, Eleanor (Ramona Young) contemplates her passion for theater being influenced by her mother who left for her own acting career, and Kamala (Richa Moorjani) struggles with the expectation of an arranged marriage. These side plots never seem excessive or carelessly tacked on, and in fact add layers to how Devi defines herself in the context of her relationships with her family and friends. All the while the happenings are hilariously narrated by tennis star and national treasure, John McEnroe, and his fourth wall breaking narration is only buoyed by the joke that he is the voice over in a teenage girl’s life.

It also goes without saying that the minority experience pervades every aspect of the story and development of the characters. This ranges from lighthearted jokes about South Asian stereotypes (apparently I don’t like fountains or dislike pranks enough) to full exposure to what their experience is like in western society. Adults struggle to cement their tradition and culture in their new home, while being at odds with the younger generation who is being pulled in two different directions. This struggle is embodied in Devi’s mother, Nalini, portrayed by heavyweight Poorna Jagannathan. Jagannathan’s performance is so dynamic and electric, juggling the pressure from her community, the stress from raising her stubborn daughter, and the grief from her husband’s passing. No more is this on display than the Ganesh Puja episode where she fights to maintain her dignity and secure her daughter’s future stability while dealing with the onslaught of judgement and pity from all of the “aunties” in her greater community. Like her daughter, she too is fighting for the right to define herself, to define herself as more than just a widow, and the expectations of the community are far from helpful. In stories about first generation individuals, it’s easy for the parents to be demonized or caricatured as unyielding, unsympathetic tyrants, but here Jagannathan captures the nuance in Nalini’s experience beautifully, and you can always see the pain and struggle carried in her eyes.

If there is any flaw to the show, it’s that there isn’t enough of the exploration of the adult characters and their backstory. Through flashbacks we get a strong sense of Devi’s relationship with her dad, and a little of Nalini’s relationship to him. Mohan is a lively and endearing father and husband, being the unabashed champion of both his daughter and wife. His relentless optimism, idealism, and support is deeply touching whether it’s through inspiring his daughter or uplifting his sorrowful wife. However, as much as we get treated to these individual relationships we are only marginally shown the overall family dynamic. The climax of the first season reveals more of the evening when Mohan passed and we realize that the dynamic between Devi and Nalini was more fraught than previously thought. Mohan is seen more as the go between for both of them and it adds a layer to the mother-daughter conflict that seems sudden. Every tense interaction between Nalini and Devi is now contextualized by their own personal differences and a pre-existing tension that was previously unknown. No sooner than this is revealed though, the resolution and reconciliation come. Hopefully more of this can be explored in the second season, where the pragmatic Nalini and the adventurous Devi have to make their staggeringly different personalities mesh more and more. Additionally seeing the beginnings of the relationship between the equally different Mohan and Nalini will be a welcome narrative exploration.

None of these drawbacks should take away from the real accomplishment that is Never Have I Ever, an entertaining and enlightened take on the coming of age story that embraces the challenge of portraying the complex experience of South Asians living in America from multigenerational perspectives. Indeed the show is serious in its mission of representation (more than half of the main and recurring cast are minorities) and validating minority stories as universally relatable. That a show could maintain any semblance of balance of that is impressive in its own right. I mean, compare that to the complexity of the aforementioned Riverdale. As Kamala put it

Never Have I Ever is currently streaming on Netflix.

Follow me on Twitter at @anotherRahulJ.

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