[Contains spoilers for Netflix show Never Have I Ever]
The hype surrounding Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling’s new show Never Have I Ever has been simmering since its announcement in March. It finally boiled over in late April, and surprisingly seeped itself through family WhatsApp threads and messages from friends. Finally, people were tweeting, we're getting representation. So, unsurprisingly, I watched the entire season in one day.
It’s no secret that South Asian representation in film and television has struggled; but not without improvement. We can confidently say that the days of actors being typecast into eye-roll inducing stereotypes, the holy trinity: cab drivers, convenience store workers, and nerdy obedient sidekicks, is over. There has been increasing visibility of South-Asian actors, with performances such as Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick and Mindy Kaling in the iconic The Office and The Mindy Project. It’s overstated but still holds true: there is something special in relating to a character in television and film; in recognising similar struggles and shared experiences.
This is why Never Have I Ever has been embraced with open arms and optimistic eyes. The Netflix series provides representation to a key body of people, the young immigrant population who are, like me, trying to navigate their immigrant experience as part of the South-Asian diaspora. Never Have I Ever follows the life of teenager Devi Vishwakumar, (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) an Indian girl growing up in California. She is bold, brash, and committed to manifesting the ‘perfect high school experience’ for her and her two best friends Fabiola and Eleanor. Underlining this quest for boyfriends and popularity is the grief of losing her best friend - her beloved father - who died of a heart attack in the middle of her orchestra concert a year ago. This immense loss caused Devi to become paralysed for three months, confined to a wheelchair. However, in a twist of luck, the sight of her crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and the promise of a happier sophomore year bolts Devi back to her feet.
At first, I was hesitant. The omniscient narrator throughout the show is John McEnroe, (and once - Andy Samberg) for a reason that only made sense to me in the final episode. The narrative decision is explained in an earlier episode but I, personally, just couldn’t grasp it. It’s interesting but at first, slightly distracting. I invited my mom to watch it with me, as the episodes progressed. We could laugh at (and relate to) Devi’s mother’s struggle to raise a ‘modern’ Desi kid with traditional values. It is refreshing to see an accurate portrayal of a young adult teetering between dismissing one’s culture and entirely embracing it. I have, along with many others, gone through the same experience. Certainly, we see Devi go through that journey when she attends the annual Ganesh Puja and begrudgingly dresses in traditional Indian wear, only to be complimented by Paxton on her “cool outfit”. The writing choices definitely warranted a few puzzled looks from my mom. The sitcom hosts its variety of Gen Z lingo and comedic pop-culture references, some of which I skipped over too. The first few episodes can be a bit clunky, probably to those of us who don’t attend an American high school. However, this draws the fact to attention that each immigrant experience is different because, obviously, each individual is different. There is such a difference between a British Indian experience and an American Indian experience, yet Never Have I Ever will give you at the very least, one moment where you can say, “same sis, me too.”
It is wonderful to see such a diverse cast with great chemistry, and the fact that this is not explicitly paraded is part of the appeal. The show isn’t good because it has POC leads, it benefits from the exceptional acting of its diverse cast. I believe this is an example of how diversity should be the common in film and television, not a celebrated exception.
(Lee Rodríguez, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ramona Young | Copyright Lara Solanki / Netflix)
Never Have I Ever takes profanity, crude humour, and raw emotions to paint a story of balancing grief with growing up. Although we root for Devi and her fiery wit, we sympathise with her mistakes, her anger, and defensiveness. The protagonist is not always likeable, but she’s real. It is an honest exploration of what it means to be a good friend, daughter, and person. Devi’s “10 Step Popularity Plan”, initially a subconscious agenda to avoid personal trauma and grief (as her therapist concludes), morphs into a newfound self-confidence. It is deeply moving to see a slow acceptance of her new life. A life without her father, but not devoid of love, laughter, and happiness, with her mother, cousin, and friends around her. These friends too, have minor subplots that tackle major topics such as coming out and struggling with parent relationships.
Never have I ever related to a young Indian character as much as I have with Devi Vishwakumar. Although the writing didn’t always hit the mark for me, the emotive journey of self-growth did. Literally - the last episode had us crying. This show is an ode to the teenagers growing up, the parents learning how to adapt, and the families growing stronger and so in a way, it truly represents us all.