Mindy Kaling’s projects have always been hit-or-miss for me, but when I saw the trailer for the raunchy teen comedy Never Have I Ever, I was intrigued. Little did I expect it to be an emotional roller coaster that left me bawling on my futon after the first ten episodes.
The show transports us to the emotional minefield that is Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a 15-year-old Indian American high school girl in Sherman Oaks, California. After the death of her father and suffering a traumatic first year of high school, Devi and her friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) seek to reinvent themselves. While the trailer does focus on Devi’s teen lust for school heartthrob Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Paxton Hall-Yoshida), the real meat of the series is Devi’s grief over the death of her father eight months ago and the subsequent breakdown of her relationship with her mother.
Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini Vishwakumar, Devi’s mother, is truly fantastic. Her relationship with Devi is a complicated mixture of overprotective and loving at first, and while the core remains loving as Devi fails to deal with her own grief, Nalini follows in kind, and their failure to communicate causes their love to be shadowed by the exhaustion of having lost a loved one.
Mohan Venkatesan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) cast a big shadow over their lives. He was able to be the bridge between Nalini’s traditional expectations and Devi’s American upbringing. When they failed to understand each other, he would be there to pick up the pieces.
We get scenes of Devi with her therapist, who is played by the Niecy Nash, and in typical Brown girl, first-generation fashion, Devi refuses to really allow herself to address the loss of her father. His death was so traumatic that it caused her to lose the use of her legs for three months, but she won’t talk about it. But Nalini is no better; she says therapy is for “white people” initially, but after giving in to the ceramics, we realize that she has been struggling to hold everything together.
The fight between the two in the penultimate episode made my heart ache. I’m old enough to understand Nalini’s devastation at feeling like she’s losing her daughter, but I can also very much relate to the teenage feeling of thinking your parent doesn’t actually love you. It doesn’t help that Devi’s beautiful cousin Kamala is there, only making Devi feel more lacking in her Indian-ness.
In a lot of works about first-generation women and their parents, there is usually more of a focus on the father-daughter relationship. I think of Bend it Like Beckham, one of the most successful South Asian films, and in that film, the mother is sort of reduced to a stereotype, and it is her father, the one who also relates a bit more to his Anglo-Indian daughter, who gets more of a focus. By allowing Nalini, the slightly more traditional parent, to be the one who is alive and trying to raise Devi, you get a much more compelling story.
Never Have I Ever isn’t perfect. It still has some weird fat and ableist jokes that feel awkward in a mostly self-aware series, but I think it really has helped to expand the landscape of what South Asian media representation looks like, especially, by allowing Devi and her mother to break apart, come back together, and love each other, even when it hurts.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix!
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