'Never Have I Ever': Mindy Kaling's coming-of-age story deals with death, crushes and the pursuit of normal
If viewers were expecting a "brown" redux of the phenomenon known as 'PS: I Love You', they might be in for a pleasant surprise. Netflix's 10 episode show centers around 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) about to enter her sophomore year at high school where identities are fashioned in the crucible of adolescence and hormones.
At school, she has two best friends, Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) and Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) - the trio are nicknamed "the UN". Then there is her sycophantic, academic nemesis, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), and her unattainable crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). At home, she has her controlling mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who she is always compared to. So far de rigueur coming-of-age story, right?
Wrong. Because Devi is also so very angry and repressing her grief over her father dying just eight months ago during her school concert. Devi, who idolized her father, is so traumatized that she becomes paralyzed for three months and is only "cured" after she catches sight of Paxton one day and her crush propels her to reengage with life. She starts her sophomore year with trips to her therapist played by Niecy Nash, and a plan to become one of the "cool" people in school and hooking up with Paxton, by working her way up, starting with more attainable targets.
It is Devi's messy journey towards 'being normal' despite the trauma, as she tries to reject her Indianness for a more acceptable American teen identity, which involves dressing like the "Indian Kardashian" and trying to acquire thongs.
Often a show like this makes a misstep by concentrating too much on the central character, leaving the side characters as paper-thin cardboard fill-ins. But, thankfully, both Eleanor and Fabiola get their own storylines. Fabiola, for instance, is interested in STEM subjects and also struggles with her sexuality until she embraces being a lesbian.
The boys in Devi's life also come into their own and are more than just foils to her antics. The point being, as Devi is reminded in the show, everyone (teenagers or not) has problems they are dealing with. Ben Gross, the nemesis, struggles with loneliness while Paxton, the crush, has a sister with a disability. Both see their lives change as they interact with Devi. While Ben starts off as being Devi's nemesis, but soon there is an undercurrent of romance in their interactions which is a pleasure to watch.
A hat tip to co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher for trying to make this show as inclusive as possible, by having Paxton's sister played by an actress with Down Syndrome and having more ethnic diversity in the cast. Devi's controlling mother and her overachieving cousin add the Indian family dynamics to the show, but with the added edge of Devi's mother grappling with single parenthood and a difficult relationship with her daughter.
You can see how Mindy Kaling channeled her own "complicated" childhood in suburban Massachusetts to provide a ring of authenticity to Devi's struggles. In this Netflix offering, she engages much more with her cultural upbringing than she did in 'The Mindy Project'. Some aspects of the show could have been tweaked like the decision to use John McEnroe as a voice-over narrator. On paper it works, with McEnroe, known for his anger issues, reflecting Devi's rage as the show tries to explain, but it doesn't quite work since Devi's own voice is diluted because of this creative decision.
But, is the show worth a watch? Absolutely. Despite the hectic and unwieldy first half, the show improves from the sixth episode onwards and should be on your watch list.
'Never Have I Ever' premieres on April 27 on Netflix.