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Friday, 1 May 2020

Never Have I Ever: Mindy Kaling's new Netflix show is both incredibly funny and surprisingly moving


The first time I heard of Netflix's Never Have I Ever was when the trailer appeared on my recommended videos on YouTube. Curious, I played the clip and got the impression that this Mindy Kaling co-created series was going to be a funny yet coarse look at high school life through the eyes of an American Indian teenager. Although I wasn't sure what to expect, I was still intrigued enough to watch more and, having been feeling low this week, thought it would cheer me up. What I wasn't expecting was to be as moved as I was by the series and, by the time I'd got to the tenth and final episode, I had tears in my eyes and a smile on my face.

While the trailer focuses primarily on our protagonist, fifteen-year-old Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and her quest to find a boyfriend in her high-school sophomore year. The season opener suggests that the story will be more about her family life and her struggles to cope with the sudden death of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) eight months prior at one of her music recitals. Following her father's death, Devi was inexplicably temporarily paralysed, a fact that spoiled her first high school year. Keen to rectify the previous year's humiliations, Devi cajoles her friends; robotics expert Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and drama kid Eleanor (Ramona Young) into getting boyfriends and enhancing their social stature. This is easier said than done when the three are dubbed the UN, short for 'unf**kable nerds' by Devi's intellectual rival Ben (Jaren Lewison) whilst their extracurricular activities don't endear them to the more popular kids in the class.


At home, Devi's dermatologist mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) struggles to cope with her daughter's highly-strung nature and her angry outbursts. Furthermore, the pair also argue over cultural issues with Nalini keen to raise Devi traditionally and unable to accept that her daughter has been westernised as she's grown up. The traditional elements of the culture are also explored through the character of Devi's cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who is studying at Cal-Tech and is in the early processes of being arranged a future husband. The only sticking point here is that Kamala already has a boyfriend Steve (Eddie Liu), a fact that she's concealed from her family who are keen for her to marry the man they've matched her up with.

As a thirty-six-year-old male, I'm probably not the target audience for Never Have I Ever but I still found myself increasingly drawn to it as the season progressed. Part of the reason for this was due to the writing as Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher imbue the dialogue with both authenticity and heart from the off. Whilst not every element of the show totally worked for me, the universal themes of attempting to grieve for a lost parent and finding your way in the world rung true here. Kaling, Fisher and the rest of the writers also have real affection for their characters starting with Devi and going down to most of the supporting cast. The show is also genuinely funny with some of the one-liners having me laughing out loud and staying with me long after the show aired.


Furthermore, the series felt different with some of its episodes standing out from those of a typical teen comedy series. Episode four focuses solely on Devi and her family attending a Hindu convention with Kamala seeing what her future could be by meeting a woman who refused her arranged marriage and was shunned as a result. Meanwhile, episode six changes focus entirely and looks at Ben, whose life inevitably isn't as perfect as it appears, and this instalment allows the audience to sympathise for him as well. Whilst it was obvious that Ben and Devi's relationship would go from hostile to amicable to romantic, I felt it brave of the writers to completely change pace and it was a risk that paid off.

The final two episodes of the season were particularly powerful for me as Devi finally attempted to deal with her dad's death head-on. Although earlier episodes had explored this theme, specifically when Devi fell out with her mother over the sale of her father's moped or when she thought his spirit was following her in the form of a coyote, the series focused in on directly towards its finale. Episode nine saw Devi unearth a deep-buried memory of what happened on the night of her father's death which led to her temporarily severing ties with her mother in the season finale. The resolution to this storyline was well-played with both humour and genuine emotion to the extent that I can forgive Kaling and company for including U2's 'Beautiful Day' during the episode's most pivotal scene.


Whilst this was primarily Devi's story, the writers also allowed us to gradually get to know her friends throughout the course of the ten episodes. Fabiola's struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and Eleanor's rocky relationship with her flighty mother were both stories that, like Devi's were handled sensitively and believably throughout. The only issue I had here were that the constraints of only having ten thirty-minute episodes meant that I didn't feel that enough time was devoted to each subplot. However, I think that both stories can be explored in more detail if Netflix picks up the show for a second season which I sincerely hope they do.

Personally, the weakest element of this first season was Devi's romantic entanglements as I was more interested in her relationships with her family and friends than I was her love interests. Initially, Devi is drawn to handsome athlete Paxton (Darren Barnett), who she attributes as being the person who ends her paralysis. Although they share moments together during the series, I never brought into their potential romance and found it to be one of the series' most generic elements. The same can be said for the foes-to-lovers story between Devi and Ben, who are certainly more of a compatible pair. As a whole episode is devoted to him, I found Ben to be the more sympathetic of Devi's two potential partners, but I didn't feel myself willing for them to be together. However, I do feel that I'm in the minority here and that the show's key demographic will be displaying on social media whether they're #teampaxton or #teamben.


Another element that didn't work for me was the fact that the series is narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe. This is explained midway through episode one with Mohan showing a young Devi clips of McEnroe and being enamoured by his attitude. Whilst McEnroe's commentary does include some fun lines, and his sardonic delivery helps to give the show a unique edge, it wasn't something that I felt was necessary. It wasn't like Devi was hearing McEnroe throughout the season and it felt instead that he was acting as an audience proxy, filling in the gaps of the story that we may have missed. However, I don't believe that Never Have I Ever is a show that really needed a voiceover and when McEnroe wasn't around I didn't miss him. I feel that this is a part of the programme that could be quietly dropped if there is a second season and nobody would particularly miss it.

What I felt was the show's biggest success was the central performance from Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who gave a star-making performance throughout. Chosen over roughly 15,000 candidates during an open casting call for the role of Devi, Ramakrishnan brought the right mix of comedy and pathos to the role and turned the protagonist into a sympathetically authentic lead. Ramakrishnan was brilliant when nailing some of the wittier lines of dialogue whilst she similarly demonstrated that she was deft at physical comedy also. Conversely, she brought a great deal of emotion to the piece when needed especially in the later episodes as Devi's memories of her father came to the surface. Poorna Jagannathan was similarly excellent as Devi's mother with the two sharing a believable chemistry throughout. Jagannathan also gave a brilliant depiction of Nalini's grief, struggling with simultaneously mourning her husband and raising her difficult teenage daughter.


Though not perfect, there was much to like about Never Have I Ever and it's a show that's stuck with me more than similar series have done. I think this is because Kaling and Fisher genuinely care about their characters and want the audience to feel that way too. The programme is both laugh-out-loud funny and at times incredibly moving, which is a hard feat to pull off, and some of the one-liners are perfectly crafted. Ramakrishnan gives one of this year's best lead performances which helps make Devi a memorable lead. Whilst the romantic elements of the plot and John McEnroe's commentary didn't work for me personally, Never Have I Ever is ultimately a show that has its heart in the right place and deserves to find a big enough audience for Netflix to reward it with a second run.

Contributed by Matt Donnelly

Never Have I Ever is streaming worldwide on Netflix.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another awful YA dramedy from Netflix. I gave up after ten minutes.

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