'Never Have I Ever': TV Review

Netflix
Smart, moving and nuanced — eventually.
4/27/2020

Mindy Kaling's first Netflix series is a teenage grief-com starring newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.

Netflix's new teen dramedy Never Have I Ever, created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, begins as a fusillade of quirks. Fifteen-year-old Devi (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is introduced, in quick order, as a studious horndog, a mourning teen still reeling from her father's recent death, a none-too-devout Hindu and a temporarily paralyzed outcast whose tongue-lolling lust for the hottest boy in school, Paxton (Darren Barnet), miraculously restores her ability to walk.

There're more quirks. In the pilot, Devi announces her plan to "rebrand" herself and her unpopular friends via a scheme that includes using a fake relationship with a closeted but obviously gay classmate as a "launchpad" toward a straight boyfriend. And yet the strangest detail of them all: The entire proceedings are narrated by 61-year-old tennis legend and noted hothead John McEnroe.

The overpacked clunkiness of that first half-hour — really, the first half of Never Have I Ever's 10-episode debut season — might give some Kaling loyalists PTSD flashbacks to The Mindy Project, a groundbreaking sitcom that regularly asked its starved-for-representation viewership to overlook bizarre turns, tonal ungainliness and a chronic squandering of promising characters and castmembers. Never Have I Ever also shares with that earlier series a bratty Indian American protagonist, an insult-spewing dark-horse love interest and a conspicuous lack of interest in exploring female friendships.

The great joy and relief of Never Have I Ever is that, at least in the latter half of its first season, the series streamlines into a deeply moving exploration of a teenage girl falling apart because she can't bear to deal with her grief. But until then, we've got the hit-or-miss spectacles of Devi asking her therapist (Niecy Nash) to buy her a thong and describing a friend as "naturally snatched." Is it a win for representation to have a foul-mouthed teenage Indian American anti-heroine use her horniness as a distraction from her grief, a la Fleabag? Certainly. Is the execution here exhausting in its initial convolutions? Absolutely.

Like most teen stories onscreen, Never Have I Ever is less about actual adolescence than stylized riffs on coming-of-age milestones. Devi's mom (an excellent Poorna Jagannathan) would prefer that her only child put off dating until her mid-twenties, but the blustering high-schooler announces to her therapist, "I'm ready to bone." (In her first screen role, Ramakrishnan can't help letting her greenness occasionally show, but she's thoroughly convincing when it comes to Devi's overcompensating effervescence, as well as her darker moments of denial.)

By the end of the pilot, Devi sexually propositions Paxton, and he accepts. (A shocked Devi, unsure of how to proceed, shakes his hand and chirps, "We'll circle back about it!") The slow-burn relationship that follows is one of the season's highlights, particularly as it veers unpredictably between platonic hopelessness and heartwarming attraction from episode to episode.

Just as compelling is Devi's will-they-or-won't-they romance with her academic rival Ben (Jaren Lewison, the strongest actor among the younger castmembers). Smarmy yet vulnerable, the suitcase-carrying would-be valedictorian reminds me of several boys I went to high school with — and whose screen counterparts I rarely see portrayed in a sympathetic light. Ramakrishnan and Lewison share the kind of comedic chemistry that converts readily to romantic sparks, and it's no coincidence that the season gains emotional depth and a greater resonance starting with the sixth episode, which is dedicated to Ben's inability to address his loneliness.

Those relationships make even starker the inertness of Devi's friendships with her ostensible besties, theater nerd Eleanor (Ramona Young) and robotics geek Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez). (The racial diversity within the trio, between Desi Devi, East Asian Eleanor and Afro-Latina Fabiola, earns them the snide nickname "the UN," but it's also refreshing to see a show set in the Los Angeles suburbs actually reflect L.A. demographics.) Unfortunately, it's hard to understand what draws these girls to one another other than their lack of popularity, so Eleanor and Fabiola mostly exist as a barometer of how terribly Devi is acting any given week.

Despite her unimpeachable grades, Devi never quite feels like she's measuring up, particularly to her graduate-student cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who's nicer, prettier and "more Indian" than the teen cares to be. Devi's misbehavior mostly stems from the unresolved issues about her father's (Sendhil Ramamurthy) death, but the show is nuanced enough to also suggest that the seeming impossibility of the expectations placed on her makes her more willing to act out, since she feels so far from meeting them anyway. In Never Have I Ever, there's nothing more powerful — or destructive — than a teenage girl who doesn't want to feel "less than" anymore.

Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Lee Rodriguez, Ramona Young, Jaren Lewison, Darren Barnet
Creators: Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Showrunner: Lang Fisher
Premieres: Monday (Netflix)