Never Have I Ever cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Darren Barnet
Never Have I Ever creators: Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher
Never Have I Ever rating: 3 stars
“I left a funeral to be by your side after Nick Jonas married an Indian woman that wasn’t you,” stresses Fabiola to her best friend Vishwakumar, in full-blown dramatic confrontation in a high school hallway. “That was very hard for me,” says Devi Vishwakumar, the protagonist of Netflix’s latest show Never Have I Ever. The outrage that Vishwakumar felt at Nick Jonas’s impending nuptials to another Indian woman, could very well be Mindy Lahiri’s in the show The Mindy Project, where Mindy Kaling played the eponymous OBGYN. Given that Mindy Kaling is the co-creator, writer and executive producer of Never Have I Ever, it all makes sense, somewhat.
The show — narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe — essentially is the story of 15-year-old Vishwakumar, a sophomore high-school student, who is trying to make a go at life while coming to terms with the recent death of her father. On her first day of school as a sophomore, she prays to a horde of Indian gods, asking for certain things to make up for last year, claiming “that last year sucked for a number of reasons.” She adds a few items on the list, as she bargains earnestly with the whole Devlok, and asks for invitations to parties with drugs and alcohol. But its her hairy body that bothers her more than you would think. “Two, I’d love for my arm hair to thin out. I know it’s an Indian thing, but my forearms look like the frickin’ floor of a barbershop,” says Vishwakumar, earnestly as she bows down at the shrine ensconced in the living room of her home. The last request on her list is for a boyfriend, who is “not some nerd” but “a stone-cold hottie who can rock me all night long.”
Woah. You go girl! One can’t help but applaud Vishwakumar’s single-minded focus. At 15, the clarity that she has for ‘what women want’ is kinda brave. She goes to school, and charts out a plan for her and two best friends — Fabiola and Eleanor — to have boyfriends, a non-negotiable step if they at all want to be “cool” in high school. Duh.
You can’t get more high school than ‘Never Have I Ever,’ the popular drinking game that even found its way to Koffee With Karan. The show apparently ticks off many boxes, like diversity, cultural appropriation, teenage angst, coming of age and grief. All this seems like a heavy but plausible mix for a show that has Kaling’s name as co-creator.
The high school teen narrative has still not lost its charm, though no one has been able to fill the chasm left by John Hughes. Never Have I Ever too employs many of the staples of the genre. The super attractive jock who doesn’t notice the nerdy but attractive heroine; the quirky best friends who are the perfect sidekicks; the cliques here are no patch on The Breakfast Club, but there is a distinct ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ divide.
What sets Never Have I Ever apart is the self-absorbed protagonist. Vishwakumar is sooo wrapped in her quest for the coolest jock in school, that she at times struggles to find any empathy from the audience. But that’s what teenage high school girl drama is supposed to be like. It helps that Vishwakumar, played by debutante Maitreyi Ramakrishnan looks the part to the T, right up to her unthreaded forehead. She is completely believable as she has loud arguments with her doctor mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), who is now struggling to raise a teenaged daughter all by herself. There is also an overachieving cousin Kamala to contend with. Throw in grief and mourning in the equation, and you would ideally have a complex, layered look of the life of an average teenager.
But often the complexities are reduced to cutesy one-liners and pop culture references — very Mindy Kaling — but they don’t make you laugh. Vishwakumar, when she wears heels and short skirt to her school is called an “Indian Kardashian.” Please! The Indian subcontinent has been blessed with having a healthy posterior way before Keeping Up with the Kardashians was a thing. We have seen Kaling pull something far more superior in The Mindy Project and Champions. Many arcs, like that of Vishwakumar’s pursuit of an Ivy College are conveniently forgotten and her mother, who otherwise had placed a strict diktat on Vishwakumar’s dating till “ she could rent a car,” seems to be okay with a lot of other stuff. There is the whole episode on being ‘not Indian enough,’ which again doesn’t find a logical conclusion.
There are some earnest attempts, like the sleepover where three girls are figuring out what does it entail to actually have sex. The three googling Kegel exercises and discussing the ways to go about kissing the male body are very honest and relatable.
It’s quite refreshing to see an Indian heroine who aces all her AP classes and is equally interested in wearing a thong, sneaking out for a party and dating. These are the times when you feel Mindy Lahiri and Devi Vishwakumar could be twins separated at birth. The sass with which Vishwakumar decimates Ben, her nemesis in her class — they both vie for the same top spot in school — is very reminiscent of Dr Lahiri having an altercation with doctors of a rival practice. The similarities don’t end here. They both are born in America to first-generation Indian immigrant parents and they are both partial to drama.
Never Have I Ever is akin to a bumpy roller coaster ride, a ride which you got on after standing in line for five hours — that’s the duration of the entire first season — and after the ride ends, you feel shortchanged. Maybe it is the generic nature of the ride, or the quick fixes that the show’s creators have slapped on to get it going. It’s enjoyable in parts, sure, but stops short of being an exhilarating experience.