Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Lee RodriguezCreators: Lang Fisher, Mindy Kaling
With Never Have I Ever, the inimitable Mindy Kaling, attempts a show ‘for and about teenagers’ and does so with the aplomb of a seasoned hand. Kaling who has featured in television shows as actor, producer, writer among others puts on the creator’s hat once again along with co-creator Lang Fisher (The Mindy Project and 30 Rock). Only this once it’s for a show that does not have her facing the camera. Instead, she gives us a teenage heroine– sophomore Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who breaks any cultural stereotypes you may have of geeky teenagers or Indian women. Devi is no demure young lady. Or a nervous geek. What we have instead is a feisty and rebellious teen who lets her temper get the better of her more often than not.
Early on in the series, we see Devi recovering from paralysis of the legs caused by the sudden and tragic loss of her father (Sendhil Ramamurthy) who she loved dearly. Her recovery, on the other hand, takes place in a delightfully comic way when she unconsciously stands up from her wheelchair while trying to get a better look at the school heartthrob Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet)! This light comedic touch consistently laces even the gravest and most difficult situations throughout Never Have I Ever and makes it shine. It also helps that the writers don’t shy away from unapologetically putting the ethnic eccentricities of Indians on the table albeit with great self-awareness and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour.
The young Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is superlative as the smart, humorous, and confident Devi. Apart from the trauma of her father’s death, there are multiple emotional issues she is grappling with and yet as a true-blue Indian American, she gets good grades, aims to go to an Ivy League University and is expected to not have a boyfriend for a long, long time. However, rather unfazed by all of this, she marches to her own beat.
Fully aware and dreading that her return to school (post-recovery) will be an object of pity, Devi has a plan to turn things around. She tells her best friends Fabiola and Eleanor (Lee Rodrigues and Ramona Young) that they all need to get themselves boyfriends to shake off the geeky, undateable tag! Devi herself tries to get attached in many ways than one to the hunky Paxton leading to the various complications that make up a large chunk of the show. Along the way, the girls make interesting discoveries–Fabiola about herself and Eleanor about her mother. Devi for one discovers that it’s actually her arch-nemesis Ben (Jaren Lewison) who brings out the best in her!
Another very significant character of the show is Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan). Nalini personifies the tough love integral to good Indian parenting. As the suddenly-single working mother, she reads Devi the riot act every time she is out of line. Jagannathan is excellent in this role and does not miss a beat when seguing from a cordial conversation to turning into a Momzilla! She typifies the Indian American parent who constantly monitors their children’s progress and lays down strict cultural Laxman Rekhas that are never meant to be crossed.
The two lead characters of Devi and Nalini are finely etched out and extremely well performed highlighting cultural idiosyncrasies and divisions with an authenticity that is rare. Additionally, for good measure, there is Devi’s cousin Kamla (Richa Moorjani), a smart young Indian woman primed for settling down in an arranged marriage even though she’s studying for a Ph.D. at CalTech. Although she appears to be a corollary, her presence adds a multi-generational perspective that prevents the show from caricaturing its protagonists.
In fact, it’s a relief to see that Devi is a character that has moved away significantly from the stereotype of the confused desi living in the Land of Opportunity.
The series (all 10 episodes) tackles issues common to all teenage dramas—family conflicts, friends, teen-sex, and boyfriends not strictly in that order. What Never Have I Ever does exceptionally well is that it steers away from being a meaningless, vapid story about a young girl finding a suitable guy to accompany her to the high school prom. In the bargain what you have is an emotional roller-coaster ride, one that you enjoy for the most part.
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