Never Have I Ever is a new Netflix Original TV show, created by Mindy Kaling, that is renowned for starring an American-Indian teenage girl and has been met with positive critical reception. For the most part, this reception is quite deserving, but there are still areas of weakness that seem to be going unacknowledged.
Teen dramas are generally fraught with dichotomous tropes that surround a somehow perfect protagonist whose only flaw is how they care too much or try too hard; a positive connotation repackaged as toxicity that always manages to be endearing both to other characters as well as the viewer. However, Never Have I Ever subverts this storytelling through the construction of the protagonist Devi Vishikumar.
Devi has genuine flaws that not only affect her mentally, but also those around her, from having an internal self-consciousness that translates to an external self-absorption, to developing infatuations that place people on pedestals and thus allow her to take other people for granted. As much as there were times where you’d wish that Never Have I Ever could suddenly transform into Black Mirror: Bandersnatch for the sake of avoiding certain decision-making, this characterisation is what makes her relatable, and dare I say, makes Devi the first authentic rather than tokenistic teenage female protagonist made for television (for tokenism, see the manic pixie dream girl and the cool girl tropes). Interestingly, this relatability is not confined to her age. Although there is definitely an overwhelming sense of ‘wow I was like that when I was 15’, the rather profound issues considered in by Never Have I Ever, namely loss, grief and trauma, allow us to not only see parts of our past selves, but even our present selves. The refusal to acknowledge traumatic experiences as a form of self-preservation is grave and grows further as adulthood progresses, and thus, I applaud Kaling for centralising this experience to the plot and redefining what can and cannot be explored in light of an assumed teenage demographic.
However, there were moments where Devi’s relatability transformed into irritability because at certain times her immaturity in the equivalent of year ten would diverge to staggering inaccuracy. The Model UN nuclear attack scene is a rude, unwarranted reaction emerging from Devi’s own personal assumption, and not even funny. This is similar for her first interaction with Paxton (the second-hand embarrassment was overwhelming). At least it was a little funny, but it needs to be acknowledged how unrealistic both Devi’s sudden advances and Paxton’s response were; any normal person would have manoeuvred the advances in a way that wasn’t as socially peculiar or been less nonchalant and significantly more taken aback respectively. I don’t think this blatant immaturity is a mistake in the writing at all, which would ironically partially absolve the show for facilitating such immaturity. Rather, it seems to have been intentionally written for the sake of plot movement and based on the hopeful (but frankly quite lazy) assumption that all teenagers are this immature with no questions asked. There may be dimension in Kaling’s exploration of issues that transcend into adulthood, but it’s completely absent in the moments that remain within the parameters of adolescence that do not contribute to an overarching thematic concern.
The primary example of how Kaling pays careful attention to moments that contribute to such thematic concerns is clear in the exploration of insecurity. Insecurity is a hallmark of the adolescent experience that tends to be excluded from the teen drama. Usually, if the notion is ever considered at all, it takes the shape of a twenty-something year old actor who most likely modelled before their acting career attempting to convince the viewer that they’re an unlovable nerd because they wear glasses and overalls (see pretty much every 2000s teenage romantic comedy film). However, the nuance of Never Have I Ever’s insecurity lies in the realistic depiction of how it facilitates the emergence of what I like to call the over-glorification of romance that is quintessential to the real life high school experience. It felt a little haunting watching the perpetuation of the idea that there is something wrong with you if you’re the alleged ‘only one’ who’s not in a relationship, and by extension, that there is an invisible safety net protecting the integrity of your personality and the standard of your physical appearance once you are in a relationship. I don’t think it is a thought process that is strictly allocated to our high school selves that suddenly disappears when we graduate; this criticism prompts the viewer to consider our current thought process.
I think it is time to segue and discuss the component of the show that piqued my interest in the first place; representation. The merit of the representation in Never Have I Ever lies further than mere inclusion; important narratives are given their due attention and compassion (particularly with Fabiola), but simultaneously, the personal identities of characters are not their only plot lines. Before starting the show, I was a little sceptical of the specific representation of Indian culture and heritage as it is rarely ever included in mainstream media let alone well. However, upon viewing, I appreciate the accurate and unabashed inclusion and thus normalisation of Indian culture and heritage amidst the modern Western context. The best example of this is episode four when Devi attends the Ganesh Puja celebration; there is no sense of mockery embedded within the writing at all, no little jokes from other characters, no shot of a character is the background making Andy Samberg-esque expressions that intend to make the audience laugh in a slightly derisive manner. Devi does experience a sense of embarrassment, the episode is titled ‘…felt super Indian’ after all, but another character does respond to her expression of embarrassment by admitting that they too felt this way when they were younger but now, honestly miss such celebrations. This interaction is eerily indicative of what a lot of us go through; shifting from being embarrassed by displays of culture and heritage to being quite proud of them as well as feeling a hint of sadness for feeling the way we did when we were younger and holding ourselves back in the process. The little addition of Paxton telling Devi she ‘looked cool’ in her cultural attire instead of participating in an age-old skit where a group of teenagers bully someone for their heritage sticks out in my mind; not only is there nothing new in such a skit, but if it were to be included, it is subconsciously reinforced that this type of behaviour is acceptable. For these reasons, I do understand why Never Have I Ever is considered to be a ‘watershed’ moment for representation in Hollywood.
However, I only understand this praise to a certain extent. The storytelling of Never Have I Ever is also entrenched in cultural stereotypes that are constructed through the lens of Western perception. This can be seen in how the Kaling panders to the ‘strict Indian mother’ stereotype, the ‘nerdy Indian girl’ trope, and the assumption that there is a lack of compassion or genuine displays of such compassion in ethnic familial relationships. In any other case, this pandering with the purpose of plot movement would not surprise me. However, Never Have I Ever spends so much time deconstructing the stereotypes of other characters; the intelligent but arrogant student is actually lonely and surprisingly considerate, the jock is protective of his sister and generally quite kind. In doing so, it feels like a disservice to include the cultural stereotypes surrounding the protagonist and therefore refuse to spend parts of the narrative undermining or at least diluting them.
Overall, I think all of the above layers veil the fact that the plot of the show is quite conventional in its intersection of the teen drama and story lines popularised in fanfiction. Besides, if the writers attempted to include an absolutely absurd plot-line from the beginning, everything significant and intelligent would be watered down quite quickly. I think the first season captured enough attention that the plot can move into more original and distinctive territory in the next season, but if it such nuance is still absent, beware. Never Have I Ever could easily turn into just another Netflix Original.
Check out the trailer for Never Have I Ever here: