Review: Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever Gets Representation Right
‘Never Have I Ever’ is currently streaming on Netflix.
Never Have I Ever
Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever Gets Representation Right
This review does not contain any spoilers.
Mindy Kaling’s first Netflix coming-of-age sitcom, Never Have I Ever (streaming from 27 April), is a strategically self-aware story of a headstrong first-gen Indian American teenager, Devi Vishwakumar. Essayed by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Devi’s character struggles to cope with her father’s death while trying to navigate the cliches of the American high school life.
Predictably sprinkled with quintessential ‘Indian’ references like saris, Bollywood, and (now) Priyanka Chopra, ‘Never Ever Have I Ever’ is much more than a desperate attempt at representation.
It has fleshed-out characters, a plot that extends beyond the characters’ racial and ethnic identities, and a tolerable script but sadly, it disappoints in the humour department.
Starring newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as the fierce protagonist Devi, Poorna Jagannathan (Devi’s mother), and Richa Moorjani (Devi’s Indian cousin Kamala), Never Have I Ever is created by Mindy Kaling, in collaboration with Lang Fisher acting as the showrunner and writer. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan does a phenomenal job of crawling under her character’s skin and owning it, often overshadowing the other actors in the show.
The 10-episode coming-of-age drama (it’s honestly more drama than comedy) starts off with an awkward and cringy pilot episode that’s everything it shouldn’t be.
It’s information-heavy, tries too hard to impress both its brown as well as non-brown audience and sets a rather misleading tone for the rest of the show. But if you make it past the first couple of episodes, you’re in for a treat.
For the most part of it, Never Have I Ever gets representation right. It attempts to capture the Indianness of a Hindu family living in the USA through the lives of Devi, Nalini, and Kamala - each fiercely independent, ambitious and open to defining and redefining themselves vis-a-vis their identity as an ‘Indian.’ They’re not demure; they’re loud, unapologetic and realistic about their own quirks and shortcomings.
In fact, Devi is no cool kid. She is deeply aware of and understandably bothered by her unpopularity, but instead of surrendering to a life of invisibility, she becomes the go-getter she needs to be. Her intentions, though juvenile, stem from a complex narrative of grief and trauma. One thing that I personally found interesting was how cleverly the writers avoided eliciting feelings of pity. Despite their struggles and complicated backstories, the viewer never feels even a shred of sympathy.
Devi also has a bunch of friends whose personal storylines, though cliched, are justifiably portrayed but are far removed from the actual purpose of the show. Kaling, through her representation of non-Indian characters, makes it abundantly clear that they are secondary and only exist to further Devi’s teenage journey.
What Doesn’t Work
Never Have I Ever’s biggest let down is the disappointing comedy. Mindy Kaling’s 10-part series is unable to deliver the comic relief it very astutely lays the foundation for. Moreover, certain elements in the show make very little sense in retrospect. For example, in order to balance out Devi’s delusional quirks, there’s a narrator unnecessarily hand-holding us through the show. But the narration itself adds very little to the entire experience.
Side note: Look out for a surprise narrator... who has also been forcefully written into the script by someone who felt like there weren’t enough American pop culture references already.
In trying to achieve everything it does, Never Have I Ever still falls short in certain bits.
To begin with, Devi’s relationship with grief, in the aftermath of her father’s demise, gives us high expectations of what’s to come but in the latter half of the show, it loses direction.
Additionally, some might even wish to call it out for its extremely Hindu portrayal of being ‘Indian’ - a valid concern that the makers seem to have tried to address, but the attempt is too half-hearted to even consider. Personally, I felt like Devi’s delusional indulgences also get a little repetitive after a point.
Yay or Nay?
Never Have I Ever is not without its flaws - no show ever is. It tries to achieve a lot, it’s ambitious, so there are bound to be disappointments. At times, it also goes overboard with its Indianness. In fact, even after 10 episodes, it offers little resolution and makes you question if it’s worth sticking around for season 2. But despite all of this, I’d still say it deserves a watch.
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