If you have watched and enjoyed The Mindy Project, you will recognise its markers and gimmicks in Never Have I Ever. Every second line out of Devi’s mouth is reminiscent of Dr Lahiri’s (played by Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project) – confident, unapologetic and garrulous personality.
Devi doesn’t represent the average teenager, or even the average Indian-American. Nor is she ever represented as such. Her bold, uninhibited and, honestly, genuine persona embodies everything Lahiri wishes she was as a teenager, and envisions her future daughter to be like. We know Devi is not an image of what Dr L was actually like as a teen because as early as season 1, episode 1 of The Mindy Project, we see Mindy Lahiri was a nerd. And no, not the “UN” that Ben Gross labelled Devi as, but the never-been-kissed, rom-com fanatic kind of inexperienced, hopeless romantic.
The main issue with critiques of the show is that it is being held to an incredibly high standard, like all art created by people of colour is. In watching (and rewatching) the 4,840+ hours of the ridiculously unrealistic Gossip Girl, I have never once questioned the authenticity of the portrayal of a white male teenager, though I imagine Brooklyn is not just full of Dan Humphreys or Columbia full of Nate Archibalds. (Edit: my Columbia grad, Brooklyn residing sister may beg to differ.)
Devi in Never Have I Ever, represents the aspirational self-assuredness of a teenage girl. She coolly says typically inappropriate things without thinking twice. Like when she stands up to her indifferent uncle and college counsellor Ron that she doesn’t need “some washed-up white dude, who leases a Tesla, telling me what makes me special”.
Not only does she speak her mind in front of her more conservative and traditionally minded family, but when in one episode she walked straight up to ask a boy out who barely knew she existed, she shows a fearless side. Devi epitomises the unpredictable, often vulgar, badass so many of us were, and perhaps still are, too afraid to be. Her desire to be cool, her avoidance of her grief, and her mistakes are what make her genuine and charming.
Trying to relate to every brown kid is an unattainable standard, setting the show and its creators up for failure. Every aspect of the show’s cultural integrity and realism tend to get nitpicked by critics. There is a way to be critical of a show without questioning only its cultural setting and intentions. In fact, by doing that, we limit our opportunity to critique the show for content, characters, and stylistic features that frankly shouldn’t be glossed over.
Never Have I Ever comes on the heels of so many coming-of-age and aspirational teen stories that have come before it. It also joins a long list of popular American comedy-dramas around female protagonists, such as Gossip Girl, New Girl, and Awkward from the late 2000s and early 2010s. Each of these shows follow young women navigating their relatively realistic lives, without the addition of a particularly quirky or fantastical plot line of a high school Glee Club, mysterious murders, or the supernatural (or an odd mix of all three…Riverdale). Though these may appear trite plots, they, and Never Have I Ever is warmly welcomed by fans of relatable “normal” narratives.
The show starts with a quick montage of Devi’s past year, specifically the incident that left her in a wheelchair. As a take on diversity that I was not expecting from the show’s trailer, I was a bit surprised – but it intrigued me. As a fleeting on-screen moment, however, Devi’s temporary paralysis after the death of her father at a school recital, acts as the main reason she is nervous about her first day.
Back-to-school anxiety is a universal phenomenon not at all limited to the physically impaired. The show didn’t need to add this extra layer of angst to an already apprehensive high school sophomore dealing with… well, life. Being a teenage girl makes one feel vulnerable enough to feel stared at. Though, the one bright catalyst from Devi’s short-term immobility, was in our introduction to Paxton Hall-Yoshida and to Devi’s jaw-dropping, earth shattering, paralysis-curing, crush on him. The narrative screams Mindy. But honestly, I get it – have you seen the boy?
Devi’s mom’s dismay at her daughter potentially dating Paxton H-Y causes her to scold the pair and results in Paxton pulling away from Devi. But did he have to be dumb? Why can’t the hot, unattainable jock also be smart? The plot line would have worked just as well without it. An Indian mom would have called any boy in her 15 year-old daughter’s life dumb! By showing him as not very bright just limits him as a character and as a love-interest for honour roll Devi. It further pits him against Devi’s long-time academic competitor Ben Gross, a cheap shot at a love triangle.
The response to a cultural stereotype is not to do or depict the polar opposite of it, but to make characters three dimensional, complex, and to put those very stereotypes into context. A character like Kamala who is supposed to be a “good Indian girl” preparing for an arranged marriage doesn’t need to break a stereotype by running off and eloping with a non-Indian non-doctor guy. Instead of making Kamala dutifully marry Prashant or making her have a Betty Cooper inspired blowout, Kamala is herself.
She realistically appeases her family by meeting Prashant and even before getting caught with her boyfriend Steve, she breaks up with Steve. Not because she is supposed to get married, but because they’d been dating for three months and she was just having fun and honestly wasn’t looking to get married in the first place.
Unfortunately, complex is not exactly how I would describe any of the characters in the show. Each of Devi’s classmates are cardboard, one-dimensional archetypes that have been picked out of a hat in a writers’ room in a lazy and last minute attempt to add characters. The cliched narratives of rich kid with disengaged parents or the dumb skater aren’t particularly engaging. I’m holding out on a second season to see the characters develop further, but at the moment, I am not impressed. The show tries to bring in so many elements that it falls a short in creating holistic character arcs for anyone except Devi. But to achieve that in just ten short episodes while still being entertaining, light, not too preachy, and not too character driven, is possibly too much to ask.
Never Have I Ever is a funny, breezy, unapologetically-itself series about a girl navigating high school who happens to be a first generation Indian-American and I really hope will be given (and takes) a second chance to flourish.
Rhea Bhatia lives in Toronto and was a university student till last year.