Review: Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan
Created by: Mindy Kaling
Rating: * * * (3 stars)
Netflix’s newest teen rom-com offering is Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, a semi-autobiographical series about an Indian-American teenager in California. Tamil-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan makes her screen debut as Devi Ramakrishnan, a likeable and odd teenager coping with the death of her father. Now she’s back for another year of high school, hoping to get a boyfriend and be popular at last.
Devi is a delightful protagonist who is self-absorbed but thoughtful, selfish yet well-meaning, and definitely funny – much of her humour is the typical pop culture banter we’ve grown to love. She’s joined by fellow misfits Eleanor (played by Ramona Young of Santa Clarita Diet) and nerdy Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) in her endearing, misled attempts to rise up the social ranks. Yes, the show’s trio are an Indian, an Asian-American, and an Afro-Latina, and thankfully it doesn’t make a big deal about this diversity.
At home, Devi’s family comprises her unapologetically sassy mother (Poorna Jagannathan) and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), a biology student at CalTech desperately avoiding her arranged marriage. The cast is rounded up by the talented Niecy Nash as Devi’s therapist as a sounding board for the teen’s outrageous thoughts said aloud. It’s clear that Devi’s newfound popularity attempts stem from grief about her late father, and it seems everyone can see it but her.
The show’s unexpected narrator is none other than tennis legend John McEnroe and the humour of a 61-year-old celebrity narrating the life of a teenage Indian girl is lost on no one. This could’ve been a hit-or-a-miss; luckily McEnroe’s voiceover only adds to the show’s eccentric humour.
The 20-minute runtimes are ideal for our binging needs this pandemic season. In true Netflix style, the show’s look demonstrates its high production value with a pop-influenced soundtrack. There’s a celebration of diversity that’s not in-your-face about it, and an Indianness that entertains and informs audiences. “Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you but are allowed to have opinions on your life and shortcomings,” McEnroe hilariously explains in a deadpan tone.
Showrunner Kaling’s earlier work like The Mindy Project paved the way for a new wave of comedy, but she wasn’t without her critics – like why were all her love interests white? With Never Have I Ever, Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher (whose impressive writing credits include Brooklyn Nine Nine and 30 Rock) manage to stay culturally authentic without letting ‘being Indian’ define Devi.
Of course, Never Have I Ever isn’t flawless. It relies on teen drama tropes like a bitter rival turned friend, a hot love interest who doesn’t know Devi exists, and (somewhat unnecessary) tantrums to heighten the drama. “Trust me, whatever you guys have going on, my shit’s bigger, okay?” Devi yells disparagingly at her friends, regretting it only moments later.
Despite these minor drawbacks, Never Have I Ever proves to be engaging, warm, and well-written – even with its try-hard moments.
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