Continuing my streak of initially mis-reading Netflix rom-coms, when I first saw the title Never Have I Ever, I assumed it was some psycho-sexual thriller in which I had zero interest. (Oh, how wrong I was!) Instead, Never Have I Ever is a delightful teen rom-com series from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher filled with humor, grief, loss, and touching coming-of-age stories told from the perspective of an Indian-American teenager and her diverse peers, with narration by tennis star John McEnroe. It’s probably going to fill a hole in your high school drama-loving heart you didn’t know you had. That said, it also has some parts that are problematic in terms of ableism.
The series opens with Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) praying before her first day of her sophomore year of high school. “I’d really, really like a boyfriend,” she tells the gods, “but not some nerd from one of my AP classes. Like a guy from a sports team. He can be dumb. I don’t care. I just want him to be a stone-cold hottie who could rock me all night long.” (If Mindy Kaling is not directly responsible for this line being included I will eat my hat.) She also wants to be invited to a party with alcohol and drugs (she doesn’t want to use them, just the chance to say no, thank you) and for her arm hair (which she acknowledges is an “Indian thing”) to thin out a bit. All reasonable goals for an overachieving nerdy girl.
Plus, last year, in the middle of Devi’s orchestra concert, her beloved father died of a heart attack. In response to the trauma, Devi was unable to walk for several months. We’re told that there is no medical reason for this to happen (uh, hello doctors, but I think trauma is a medical reason even though you can’t see it on a scan or a blood test), and, months later, she suddenly regains the ability to walk while checking out a hot guy.
So, yeah. There’s some stuff we need to unpack here. While the show does make it clear that Devi’s paralysis is very real (i.e. she’s not “faking” it like people assume) and while the episode is based on the experiences of Lang Fisher’s brother, I still worry that the flippant manner with which it’s handled could serve to further negative stereotypes about both physical manifestations of trauma and people living with invisible illnesses. The whole idea that something will magically cure you is problematic at best, and it being a hot guy is worse. It gives credence to the idea that everything is curable if we just do the right thing. And, it gives credence to the idea that the best thing that can happen to someone with a disability is to become “normal.” Not, say, for society to stop infantilizing, pitying, and exploiting disabled people. And for all of us to give disabled people the dignity and respect we all deserve. And to really confront our ableist ideas and make systemic changes to make spaces more accommodating and accessible. When Devi is able to walk again John McEnroe proclaims that with “working legs comes a whole new world of possibilities.” Phew. You guys, no. Disabled people live fulfilling lives. Full Stop. And they shouldn’t be shamed for demanding the kinds of accommodations that would also give them full access to a “whole world of possibilities.” And look, I feel like I’m not doing a thorough job of talking about this, but I also feel that I could go on about this for several hundred more words. Suffice to say, I was put off enough that nearly stopped watching the show at this point. I’m glad I didn’t, but I also think that Kaling and Lang would do well to sit down with disability advocates and really listen to what they have to say.
Moving on. Determined to sublimate her grief by becoming popular, having sex, and defying her strict mother (Poorna Jagannathan) in every way possible, she writes up a plan (yes, literally, which I love) to reinvent herself and her best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez)—who is president of the robotics club—and Eleanor (Ramona Young)—who is president of the drama club. It’s a classic kind of set up for a coming-of-age story, but the characters and subplots keep it from feeling like a stale rehash of what you’ve seen before.
Obviously, the main focus is Devi as she works through the mess of adolescence and wrestles with her relationship to her mother, and to her Indian culture, while also gradually coming to terms with the loss of her father. Devi can be short-tempered, selfish, and explosive. She sometimes lies to her friends rather than letting them in on her embarrassment. She speaks her mind with an intelligent kind of confidence that makes her hilarious, but she is also self-centered enough that she often doesn’t realize the impact some of her verbal barbs will have until she’s already let them fly. While their class is studying the Holocaust, Devi gets so frustrated with her lifelong academic and social rival, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), that she mumbles, “I wish the Nazis had killed you.” (Watching this part while alone in my room, I audibly gasped and grabbed my chest.) It’s the kind of thing you can imagine an angry, confused, momentarily thoughtless teen saying and then deeply regretting. When Devi realizes the gravity of what she’s said she almost doubles down on her stubbornness and unwillingness to admit fault in front of Ben. It’s this kind of vulnerability and realistic stupidity that makes Devi so wonderful, relatable, and likeable (while at the same time making you want to shake her for being such an idiot).
What further gives Never Have I Ever depth and nuance is that the supporting characters have their own arcs and facets, which play out with humor and empathy. Fabiola has a secret that she first confesses to the talking robot she built. After a life-altering family interaction, Eleanor dramatically decides to give up acting, trading in her colorful outfits for beige-on-beige ensembles. Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who lives with Devi and her mother while working toward a PhD, grapples with finding balance between her new life in America and meeting her family’s expectations. Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the popular jock Devi is determined to bed (he’s objectively handsome enough that even John McEnroe takes a moment to admire his jawline), grows to appreciate Devi’s weirdness and friendship. He also seems to have an uncomfortable awareness of the way he is objectified, sexualized, and often dismissed because of his appearance. (And it says a lot about the show’s creators, Mindy Kaling and Lane Fisher, that, after overhearing Darren Barnet, whose mother is Japanese, speaking with an assistant director, they decided to make Paxton’s character Japanese-American.) Ben Gross, first pitted only as Devi’s wealthy, overly-confident, name-dropping rival, quickly grows into a more nuanced and appealing character with his own strengths, weaknesses, and private vulnerabilities. (And his own episode, which is narrated by Andy Samberg.) This is expressed both by his own experiences and Devi’s shifting perception of him. And, since so much of it is all about Devi, many of the changes we see in the characters are also driven in part by her evolving understanding of herself and the world. This is only enhanced by the use of John McEnroe, a now sixty-year old well-known hothead, to narrate her journey. His presence moves from humorous to extremely poignant over the course of the show. (The only other show where I can remember a narrator getting their own kind of character arc was in the always wonderful Jane the Virgin.)
While she doesn’t really have her own arc, I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention Niecy Nash as Devi’s therapist. After Ben Gross tells Devi that people call her and her best friends the UN not because they are multicultural, but because they are “Unfuckable Nerds,” Devi insists that her therapist tell her if she thinks she is actually bangable or an unfuckable troll, to which the therapist responds, “Devi, I can’t do that. Ethically, legally, and most importantly, it’s creepy.” Then she adds, “…I am not going to tell you I think you’re sexy. I will tell you that boy sucks, and you should ignore him.” I would like to hire Niecy Nash to play my fake therapist in real life.
Devi lives in the sort of in-between space that will likely be deeply familiar to many children of immigrants, but is rarely shown on television. She is an American kid, raised in the San Fernando Valley, steeped in the American culture, and she is simultaneously resentful and proud of her Indian culture and the familial expectations that come with it. When she makes a TikTok dance video with her friends to try to impress her crush, she is annoyed but resigned when her mother makes her put on a shirt underneath her tight tank top dress. She insists her cousin Kamala watch Riverdale with her instead of another Hindi movie. She complains about having to wear a sari to Ganeshpuri and makes fun of the people who take the Hindu celebration seriously, but she is quick to defend herself and educate those who are ignorant. At one point an Indian-American friend who has left for college explains how, once removed from it, he came to miss the cultural celebrations. Devi remains mostly skeptical.
I think when there is such a dearth of representation, and people are so desperate to see themselves reflected in what they watch, that it’s easy to want one show to represent everyone. It’s understandable, but also unrealistic. This show certainly won’t and can’t and shouldn’t be everything to everyone, but, as a deeply personal and funny story that highlights some Hindu cultural traditions and wider immigrant experiences, while still feeling familiar to anyone who has experienced trauma and/or made it through “the best years of their life” (gag) alive, I think (with the glaring exception of how it handled Devi’s disability) it’s doing more than enough. Even if I didn’t exactly agree with who Devi ends up locking lips with in the end.