Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is a humorous, heartfelt quarantine binge that exemplifies the necessity of diversity in television. The show centers around the outspoken Indian American teen Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she enters her sophomore year of high school. Partially based on creator Mindy Kaling’s own life, Devi attempts to rebrand herself following a tumultuous freshman year when the trauma of her father’s death leaves her in a wheelchair for three months. Throughout the season, Devi struggles as she navigates her own identity, her rocky relationship with her mother and her biggest desire: to get with Sherman Oaks High School’s hottest boy, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).
Ramakrishnan shines as the star of Never Have I Ever. Devi’s outlandish behavior not only sparks much of the show's conflict but also makes her even more likable. In one scene, Devi asks her therapist if she’d buy her a red thong (since her mother won’t) and despite being considered an “unfuckable nerd” by most of the school, she isn’t afraid to shoot her shot with Paxton.
The show also grapples with the complexities of identity. While Devi shows distaste toward her cousin whom she feels is “too Indian,” she struggles to feel accepted within her own community.
Like Devi, I too have felt the too Indian/not Indian enough narrative. I cast my Indian culture aside after being teased for it in school, and it wasn’t until I grew older that I regretted it, feeling out of place at cultural events. For POC children growing up in America, this is an incredibly important dialogue to portray. There shouldn’t be this pressure to choose one culture or another, nor a reason why you can’t exist in both. Every time I watched Devi’s mother chastise Devi for her American values, I couldn’t help but tear up, having gone through the same immigrant mother tough-love moments of my own.
However, what makes Never Have I Ever a great model for the coming of age genre is that while identity is part of the struggle, it is not the entire struggle.
The show openly portrays mental health and sex — topics that are considered taboo in Indian culture — in a normal, positive light. Devi regularly sees a therapist and they openly talk about grief. Like many teens, Devi wants to have a significant other. Like many coming of age protagonists, she has an archnemesis. And like many South Asian American teenagers, she has to attend Ganesh Puja once a year, willingly or not.
While some critics of the show express disappointment at the show's unrealistic teen culture, I would like to point out that Riverdale has 74 episodes and counting. Improbable plots aren’t new to television, nor are they not considered valid entertainment. But Never Have I Ever isn’t completely impractical, and it isn’t meant to be a catch-all for representation. As Ramakrishnan puts it, Devi’s story is only one of thousands.
Never Have I Ever also deals with themes beyond race. Fabiola, one of Devi’s best friends, comes to terms with her sexuality and struggles to come out to her friends and family. Many of the characters grapple with troubled home lives, such as Devi’s other friend Eleanor, who tries to reconcile with her mother who abandoned her.
But the show still has its flaws. There are many instances where the script feels insensitive, especially in 2020. In one of the earlier scenes, Devi remarks that she would be okay with dating one of her closeted gay peers because his popularity would boost hers. When Devi is temporarily paralyzed due to the trauma of losing her father, she claims to “overcome” her paralysis upon seeing Paxton. This notion reveals undertones of ableism: that disabilities can be “fixed” and characters can resume “normalcy.” For the show to remain successful, the writers will need to pay more attention toward the issues that could become crucial pitfalls.
For a South Asian girl to be the main character of the show is a huge deal to the community. But for Devi’s Indian-ness to enhance her character, and not define it, is even more valuable. Never Have I Ever is the perfect take on the coming of age show you think you’ve seen a million times, but one that will leave you feeling a little more like someone finally understands you.
Article thumbnail: Netflix / Public domain