The premise of Never Have I Ever is stuff we have seen before – an American teenager dealing with first boyfriends, losing one’s virginity, girlfriends, academic competition and constant conflicts with the parent. The Netflix series adds details to this premise. The teen in question is an Indian-American, and then there’s the unexpected presence of John McEnroe.
Indians in the US have played minor roles in American shows and movies. But here, the entire show is about the Vishwakumar family, which is of South Indian descent. The nuances built into the 10-episode series could only have come from experience, which is no surprise since Mindy Kaling is co-creator with Lang Fisher.
While the Vishwakumars conform to immigrant stereotypes – controlling parents, nerdy kids, over-achievers, socially and sexually awkward teenagers – the show does not parody or mock them. Adolescent Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is a fast-talking, brilliant student dealing with the unexpected loss of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). Her dermatologist mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) tries to adjust to single parenting of a rebellious teen who is yet to deal with her grief, but the relationship is not a smooth one.
The easy-breezy high school sitcom, which tonally sits somewhere between Sex Education and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, opens on the first day of sophomore year. Devi is praying to the pantheon of Indian gods for a “blessed year”, hoping she will be invited to a cool party with alcohol and wishing that her arm hair would thin out.
A ripped Japanese-American swimmer is the object of Devi’s lust. Apart from a competitive nerd who is her bete noire (and the only rich white character of prominence), there are two girlfriends dealing with their own issues, her attractive Indian cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) and an unconventional therapist, which means there is never a dull moment.
As the glib and imperfect Devi, first-time actress Ramakrishnan is confident and adorable. Devi is far from the dutiful daughter. “Devi drama” pops up at the most inopportune moments. She also has mommy issues and a temper. As selfish as Devi is, she’s also got a soft side, and Ramakrishnan works Devi’s myriad shades delightfully.
The supporting cast fills in admirably, with Jagannathan immersing herself into the meaty role of a working mother with high expectations of herself and her daughter. Jagannathan’s comic timing is spot on as Nalini struggles to hold her fragile family together. Her frustrations with Devi and her determination to get Kamala settled into an arranged marriage provide the humour and the emotional thrust.
Kamala further upends stereotypes, and Moorjani also brings in the oomph. Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young, as Devi’s girlfriends Fabiola and Eleanor, match Ramakrishnan at every step. Fabiola’s track about her sexuality is one of the stronger elements in the show.
That brings us to John McEnroe. The three-time Wimbledon tennis champion’s voiceover, filled with self-deprecating humour, references to his career and legendary explosive personality, add an edge to the narrative.
Indian-Americans, or those with families in the US, will also identify with characters like the inquisitive gossiping aunties at weddings, the priest or the well-meaning uncle who can only talk about his business.
The most poignant (and in some ways one of the most Indian) aspects is how grief is dealt with – or not. The impact of the loss of a parent is carefully woven into the broader arc of Devi’s confusion. Nor are the characters politically correct. Nalini threatens to “smack” Devi, but we understand it as a figure of speech that matches Indian family dynamics.
It’s lovely to see Indian characters front and centre and comfortable in their desi identity. It’s even more wonderful when the writing is so warm, smart and caustic, and the performances are assured and endearing.