“Never Have I Ever” Review


image from Google

Anjana Suresh and Somya Thakur

Never Have I Ever released just over a week ago on Netflix — a convenient time for new show releases. Creator Mindy Kaling loosely based the story on her own childhood as a child of Indian immigrants.  The main character is 15-year-old Indian-American Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan).

As two second-generation Americans, we were excited at the prospect of better representation in American media, though, in retrospect, the 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating feels especially high.

Devi’s story is narrated by John McEnroe, which seemed incredibly strange and ill-fitting at first. It’s revealed shortly after that Devi lost her dad a few months before the show takes place, and McEnroe is Devi’s dad’s favorite tennis player. The goal was probably to provide some sort of symbolic, objective oversight into Devi’s life, but when McEnroe pronounced almost every Indian name or word wrong, it seemed almost ignorant. He should have either learned to pronounce the words correctly, or Devi herself should have narrated the show.

Despite the show being a fairly predictable high school rom-com, it got off to quite an awkward start. Devi’s innocent wish to get a boyfriend at the beginning of sophomore year quickly turns into an obsession with losing her virginity, straying considerably from the plot of many similar shows. She chases after the most popular guy in school: Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), who, of course, wants almost nothing to do with her; she’s a nerd. At times this narrative felt forced and made it hard to watch without cringing in secondhand embarrassment. 

In one of Devi’s dreams, Paxton tells her she “has the beauty of Priyanka Chopra.” The whole point behind creating a show like Never Have I Ever was to move away from the “mainstream” representation of Indians and Indian culture by introducing a more relatable character, but this line compromised that purpose. The portrayal of Devi as a typical unpopular nerd also added to the negative Indian stereotype the show was supposed to break away from.

Devi didn’t have much development as a character throughout the season. Her sarcastic, short-tempered and cynical nature made her quite an unlikable main character, causing her to temporarily lose her two best friends and start more unnecessary drama with her rival, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). The insults are hardly surface-level though; Devi angrily tells Ben she “wished the Nazis would have killed him” in reference to his Jewish heritage, in front of her whole class. Her statement is not taken nearly as seriously as it should have been, since all she receives is a verbal warning. Her blatantly offensive statements were a failed attempt at trying to make the show funny. 

The show accurately portrays most of the aspects of Indian culture, and Devi’s struggle to accept her heritage and come to terms with it is not unlike the situation that many second-generation American children face. However, it doesn’t get resolved by the end of the season. We see Devi describe one of the Hindu rituals as “weird” to someone else. If there is another season, hopefully that will bring the opportunity for Devi to be able to embrace it. 

The good news is that there is always room for growth with a series like this. While many of the aspects of the show can be seen as cringy it’s important to recognize how this show changed south Asian representation.  

This is exactly the kind of struggle we go through as first generation South Asians. You’re either ‘too brown’ or ‘not brown enough.’ ”

Growing up the only South Asian representation we really got was either Appu from the simpsons, who was literally just a stereotype, or some Disney Channel character that always had a stereotypical Indian accent. Usually these characters’ main personality trait was that they were Indian. We never really had the privilege of imagining ourselves as main characters because most of the time, people who looked like us were usually the side character who never had an impact on the story. The few times we would get media representation it would be the stereotypical South Asian nerd. 

Devi is a far cry from what we are used to. Not only is she a first generation American-Indian, but she also struggles with her identity. She tries to find a balance between the two and often ends up neglecting one or the other. This is exactly the kind of struggle we go through as first generation South Asians. You’re either “too brown” or “not brown enough”. 

The scene where Devi goes to a Ganesha Puja and feels entirely out of place is extremely relatable because that’s happened way too many times. It’s a feeling of “what exactly do I say” or “I feel like I don’t even belong here”. Scenes like this are trickled throughout the show but are not the main aspect of the plot. Which we are grateful for. 

It is honestly kind of refreshing to see a main character who is as comfortable with her emotions as Devi is, the show was able to have a woman of color actually be able to express rage and not be seen as “crazy” or “unruly”. It allows young women like us to be assured that our feelings and emotions are valid and that we won’t be labeled negatively by those around us. We shouldn’t have to tiptoe around everyone and be afraid that we may upset or offend them! 

The show dually deals with the heavy topic of mental health and how South Asians deal with the shame, fear and secrecy of mental illness. Oftentimes the causes for mental illness can be misunderstood and families have a social pressure to conform to what the south Asian community believes. People with mental health problems are often not valued or seen as lazy. 

After her father dies, Devi has to deal with the trauma alongside her mother, leading to many disagreements. Her mother eventually agreed that she should go to a therapist. This breaks the stereotype that Devi’s mom was initially perpetuating. 

The show will obviously be watched by many South Asians and their families, by watching the show many parents can have a a small glimpse into what life for their children is like and maybe have a better understanding of why they do the things that they do.