Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show sums up second-gen childhoods: introspective, awkward and bizarre.
by Ananya Sankar
The new bubbly Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever, loosely inspired by the childhood of comedian Mindy Kaling, surprises viewers with its heartwarming spin on the classic American teen tale. Through Kaling’s trademark slapstick humor meshed with intimate character development, viewers are taken through the fumbles of Indian-American teenager Devi Vishwakumar as she grows into her identity following her father’s sudden death. It cuts deep into the pressing feelings of estrangement that mold the children of many immigrants, and pulls the heartstrings of the brown community.
The Ganesh Puja episode specifically resonated with me as an Indian-American viewer. During the episode, Devi attends her community’s auspicious celebrations without a complete understanding of their meaning. She mindlessly follows her mother’s routines, is overcome with embarrassment, and complains about the itchy sari she has to wear. These scenes depict an unnerving disconnect between Devi and the community she feels isolated from. In a frustrated outburst that appears to sum up the whole show, she says, “Some old loser was telling me that I’m too Indian. Some other people think I’m not Indian enough.”
Co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher did a pointed job of showcasing the confusing, twisted, guilty mess that plagues immigrant children simply trying to discover where they fit in. Devi is the aimlessly floating anomaly all of us Indian-American teenagers needed to remind us that sometimes, it’s ok to be confused.
I also enjoyed that the show depicted Devi simply as a product of how she was raised, rather than negatively depicting her more “Americanized” values or suggesting that she had been “white-washed.” Growing up in America, it’s natural for a character like Devi to adopt that culture and surround herself with people who exemplify it as well. Kaling does a pointed job of emphasizing that this is a normal process of growing up with two cultural backgrounds, and that it is nothing to be ashamed of.
If you’ve been struggling to find a show that sums up Indian beauty struggles, strained family dynamics, and a confusing understanding of love, this might be the show for you.
However, while the writers do a great job of explaining immigrant culture, ‘never do they ever’ accurately grasp teenage culture. Some aspects of the show cast an uncomfortable shadow over the plot’s authenticity, and often undermine its emotional impact.
It felt a bit like adults desperately struggling to understand Gen-Z and ultimately misinterpreting their values based on corny rom-coms. At only 15-years-old, Devi is openly asking boys to have sex with her and is obsessed with the notion of “rebranding” to become cooler. The whole thing feels a bit forced and awkwardly distasteful, as most teenagers hoping to relate to the show would find these plot choices wildly inaccurate. With such a large platform to speak on, choosing to create another boy-obsessed, I-need-popularity storyline appears to challenge the empowering character Devi is meant to be, and sends the wrong message to viewers. Popularity isn’t always about boys, and it certainly isn’t about sex at 15. The predictable writing took away from the raw authenticity of more touching storylines such as Devi’s relationship with her late father or her dwindling relationship with her mother.
There were also stranger plot points that added absolutely no substance to the show and left me questioning their point in the first place. The opening scene of the first episode explains that after her father’s death, Devi somehow loses all feeling in her legs due to grief and spends the rest of the year in a wheelchair. Then somehow, she sees a cute boy and stands up to get a better view of him, miraculously cured. It’s an unnecessary and frankly bizarre thread of events that don’t contribute to the actual show and in fact never gets brought up again besides vague references to her time in a wheelchair. A bit of an oddball choice, and another reason why I struggled to relate to some aspects of the show.
But on the whole, Never Have I Ever is a step in the right direction. Not only does it boast brown representation, but it boasts specifically South Indian, Tamilian representation that often gets glossed over by Western media attempting to incorporate Indian culture. The cast of the show is almost exclusively colored, but in a way that feels more natural than other shows that seem to be forcing diversity onto the big screen. Newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan does an exceptional job playing Devi and may be paving the way for a younger, more authentic generation of brown representation to enter the media industry.
The Indian-American experience is a painfully beautiful one, and this show’s title is well-picked; when you’re straddling the line between two different worlds, life experiences become a bit of a gamble.
Ananya Sankar is a journalism student at Northeastern University in Boston, and has an avid interest in women’s studies. She has previously interned at the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day and worked as an editor for her town’s local newspaper. She was also mentored by New York Times reporters Bruce Weber and Jan Benzel during a summer program in Oxford, England, where she gained a passion for exploring untold stories.