'Never Have I Ever' review: Netflix's latest teen comedy by Mindy Kaling is a nuanced coming-of-age offering


It is impossible to watch Never Have I Ever and not feel your heart rate pick up at some of the very raw scenes, especially the arguments which take place in Devi Vishwakumar’s home. Before watching the series, I had kept my supply of eye-rolls, cringes and gag reflexes ready — even though Mindy Kaling spearheaded this project. In fact, a part of me was certain that this project was a ‘brown replica’ of To All The Boys I Loved Before. That said, rarely do I like to be proven wrong... but this time I was thrilled. I was also quite pleased that the show has nothing to do with the silly drinking game, to which I have befallen victim too many times.

Never Have I Ever follows sophomore Devi Vishwakumar who resides in Southern California with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and her overachieving cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). Just eight months before, Devi’s father, her idol, tragically passed away from a heart attack during Devi’s school concert. As a result, the doting daughter was paralysed for three months before she catches sight of a boy she likes and is able to walk again. Having suppressed her grief, she returns to high school with a mission to get a boyfriend and to make sure she is one of the coolest people on campus. The last bit sounds pretty cliched, but if Kaling is in charge of a script, Devi’s journey would be anything but.

Culture and identity

We consistently see Devi tamping down on her grief while still attending therapy regularly; though mental health, grief and therapy are heavily present in the series, Kaling and Maitreyi do not hold back in Devi’s determination to not address her deep-simmering pain. She has even withdrawn from playing the harp (an unexpected instrument choice and a welcome break away from the stereotypical instruments assigned to Indian-American characters). Over the course of the series, this impacts her relationship with Nalini, Kamala, her best friends Eleanor and Fabiola, her academic rival Ben, her crush Paxton... and her self-perception, especially. In turn, this fuels her pursuit of Paxton (someone inherently unlikable) and of making sure she gets into an Ivy League.

‘Never Have I Ever’ , Netflix
  • Starring: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani
  • Storyline: An Indian-American girl grapples with growing up after losing her father.
  • Show: 1 season, 10 episodes

There are several points where Devi, who has quite the short fuse, rejects her ‘Indianness’ — of which I was always guilty as someone who consistently has trouble defining their global identity. Fans of The Office, where Kaling was a writer, will find themselves expecting a festive episode — much like the one titled ‘Diwali’ — and Kaling delivers with a Ganesh puja.

This episode, to my surprise, turned out to be one of my favourites, and not just because of the endearing sour expressions on Devi’s face. In the same episode, Kaling also points out that not all pandits carry the usual tropes. One scene that lingers in the mind is when Nalini drives the pandit to Home Depot after the puja, and when he graciously thanks her, she merely responds, “A pandit in an Uber is like Prime Minister Narendra Modi using Postmates.”

Maitreyi’s being a newcomer is a helping hand in creating Devi as an all-relatable entity. In fact, while some newcomers over-deliver, Maitreyi is quite familiar with the cultural nuances of today’s Indian-American teen, be it straddling the line of two cultures or embracing the digital age through dance videos for social media.

Not holding back

The resounding emotion through the show is empathy. We may not agree with some of the choices made by Devi, Nalini, Kamala or anyone else during the course of the series, but the setting fosters a lot of understanding, calling for a tear or two from even the toughest of hearts. Most young Indians watching Never Have I Ever will feel a connection with some of the fights between Devi and Nalini: the awful things said in anger and the misdirected rage — aspects which have long been diluted for television’s sake. Kaling not holding back here adds a great deal of depth to the series, which surely makes this project her best so far.

One of the most remarkable parts of the show is that the narrator is tennis star of the 80s John McEnroe; let’s face it, many of us expected Kaling to take this role on. Don’t worry, there is some sense to this decision.

Never Have I Ever is paced well across its 10 episodes, complete with no jaw-grinding cliffhangers. The vibrant visual appeal of the series does not undercut the more serious issues of loss, mental health, loneliness and cultural pressures. At its heart, the series reminds us not to be in rush to grow up. The first few episodes cement the settings and offer a hint of what is to come but do expect a heart-warming story here that leaves us waiting for a second season.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 10:54:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/never-have-i-ever-review-netflixs-latest-teen-comedy-by-mindy-kaling-is-a-nuanced-coming-of-age-offering/article31388022.ece

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