Never Have I Ever review: Mindy Kaling's Netflix show is much more than a teen comedy
Never Have I Ever is a new series about a first-generation Indian-American teenage girl — much like actress-comedian Mindy Kaling, the show’s creator — updated to a 2020 setting.
If you want to see what a high school comedy looks like, look no further than Never Have I Ever. The show is fearless, and funny, and welcoming, and weird, and it highlights how being a teenager is universally complicated. Mindy Kaling, and her The Mindy Project collaborator, Lang Fisher, make their Netflix debut with the young-adult comedy about a 15-year-old Indian-American girl navigating high school, her mom’s traditional Indian values, and the grief of losing her father.
As much as it’s a teen comedy, the heart of Never Have I Ever lies in the relationship between Devi Vishwakumar — vibrantly played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — and her father, Mohan — Sendhil Ramamurthy or rather, "Devi's hot dad", as he's become known — who died suddenly. Mohan, an optimistic guy, and humongous tennis fan, lingers for Devi, and her overbearing mother — a perfect, and precise performance from Poorna Jagannathan — in flashbacks, and memories of happier times, and also in the fact that the show is narrated by his idol, American tennis legend John McEnroe (more on that in a bit).
After premiering all the 10 episodes in late April, the teen dramedy has hit No. 1 in the world on Netflix's Top 10 list, and calls for a potential second season have intensified. Critics seem to adore the show (it currently has a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while fans can’t get enough of its confident, fun, and unique vibe (the series has an 8.9 rating on IMDb. As it often goes with Netflix originals, Never Have I Ever has quickly become the talk of the town, with many fans on social media praising the show not only for its writing, but also for the performances.
In the opening shot, we see High school student Devi praying to the gods for her new school year to not suck, because last year did. So, how bad did last year suck? Well, Devi’s dad died of a heart attack, while attending her school orchestra concert, and then she was stricken with a sudden, inexplicable paralysis that lasted for months. Now that her psychosomatic paralysis is behind her — seeing high school hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida across a grocery store parking was the cure — Devi is determined to make her second year of high school better than her first year.
Everything you like about angsty teenage drama is present in Never Have I Ever. There’s the underdog quasi-loser lead, an overbearing mother, a perfect cousin she can never compare to (Richa Moorjani), her quirky friends (played with aplomb by Ramona Young, and Lee Rodriguez), aforementioned school hottie Paxton (Darren Barnet), and a snooty rival who you will love to hate (Jaren Lewison’s Ben). They’re all stock characters you’ve seen before, but these tropes shine bright when they’re put in orbit around Devi. Never Have I Ever normalizes diversity, instead of treating it as exceptional. Our takeaway from a blissful five-hour binge was that Devi's Indian heritage is naturally a part of her life — but she's also enamoured with American culture.
Devi makes the show; and her experience as an Indian-American daughter of immigrants in California, makes the show stand out. Devi is a typical American teenager in that she goes to school, and aims for popularity, all while trying to get stellar grades, and participating in as many extra-curriculars that will impress the Princeton admissions committee, as possible. Yet, while she navigates the inevitable high school situations, like parties, and a Model UN summit, we also see periodic interjections from Devi’s father. We see flashes of the ambulance that took him away, and the orchestra concert, where his death occurred. Unlike many of her peers, Devi is living with a ghost. You root for Devi, and now that you know this is her first role, you’re also rooting for Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who beat out 15,000 hopefuls for this role, and you immediately see why.
The combination of Mindy Kaling, and Lang Fisher's lived experiences, and excellent ear for punchlines — Ben’s "Shut up, my dad’s hot!" had us cackling — gives this show a voice unlike anything else. Never Have I Ever is further separated from the crowded field of teen content by its willingness to get weirder, and more emotional, sometimes in tandem. Never is that more evident than in the choice to have John McEnroe serve as the narrator — like Devi, the former tennis pro and champ, who holds seven Grand Slam single titles, and nine doubles, is known for his epic meltdowns on the court. He introduces us to the teen heroine in the first episode of Never Have I Ever, and this bit of narration from him perfectly captures the show: "So today, Devi returns to high school. Can she shed her old identity as the paralyzed Indian girl, whose dad dropped dead at a school function? It’s not likely. Those things are pretty unforgettable."
(All photos courtesy Netflix.)