Netflix’s original series Never Have I Ever by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher is the coming of age dramedy I wish had growing up. Sure, I had shows like Degrassi and My So Called Life, but both lacked the cultural diversity of this modern tale. With the perfect combination of smarts, sensibility, sass, and realism, Never Have I Ever is exactly the kind of story we need in 2020.
Devi Vishwakumar played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is a high school sophomore dealing with the tragic loss of her father Mohan Viswakumar (Sendhil Amithab Ramamurthy). Due to this trauma, she is physically and emotionally paralyzed. Until one day, her desire for Junior Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) inspires her to finally stand up and walk. After this, Devi deals with her unresolved trauma through self destructive actions that involve Paxton and everyone around her. As the school year progresses, Devi’s behavior and attention-grabbing antics come to a blow when she successfully pushes away her family and friends.
There are several female-relationships in Devi’s life worth exploring:
Devi and her mother Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan), always had a complicated relationship. The death of her father didn’t make it any better. The two share their aspirations for Devi to succeed scholastically, but other than this, they lack proper communication. Devi’s desire is for her mother to be proud of her. However, like many first generation immigrants, Devi didn’t appreciate her culture, the sacrifices that her mother and father made when coming to this country, and the choices her mother made in order to cope with her husband’s death. I enjoyed seeing glimpses of Nalini and Mohan and all their hopes and dreams for their growing family. These glimpses gave us an inside look at Nalini’s repressed emotions and how hard she was trying to move on. Throughout the series, she tries to bring back “normalcy” into her family by embracing tradition, trying to sell her husband’s scooter, and even declaring that they were moving back to India. In the midst of this, she struggles to communicate with Devi, who also struggles with her grief. When Nalini takes out the scooter for herself, goes to therapy, and finally faces the critics at the Hindu Association ‘s Ganesh Puja holiday, she starts embracing her loss instead of trying to push through it. This leads to an emotional encounter with Devi at the beach while spreading her husband’s ashes. It’s a touching scene not just between mother and daughter, but between two women acknowledging their pain and promising to be there for one another.
Devi and her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) can be brushed off as mere rivals. However, we quickly learn that the cousins have a lot more in common. Though Kamala was raised in India and is a recent immigrant to the states, the smart and charismatic bio tech engineer student embraces the freedoms of the American life (as she sees on Riverdale). Similar to Devi, we find her struggling with cultural traditions and family expectations. She may seem like the perfect Indian woman ready for an arranged marriage, but her heart is set on much bigger goals. The difference between the two, is that because Kamala is older, raised differently, and sees the long term consequences of her actions, she chooses the expected path. After conversing with a social outcast at Ganesh Puja, Kamala learn what happens when an Indian woman chooses herself over her family. This prompts Kamala to rethink her affair with her American boyfriend. She is presented with hard choices that 15 year old Devi has yet to understand. Devi and Kamala are able to find common ground when both take into account that they are both smart, capable young women, no matter how many of their cultural traditions they choose to embrace. Am I Indian enough? is a question they both struggle to answer.
Devi and her friends robotics enthusiast Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and theater lover Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), share the title UN (unf*kable nerds). Though they begin their academic year with the mission to correct this awful nickname, throughout the series, the mission becomes more of an exploration of self and friendship. The series dedicates time to fully understand and develop these crucial characters in Devi’s life. While Eleanor deals with an absentee mother whom we later learn is jealous of her daughter’s success, Fabiola deals with a mother who is too involved in her life to the point of picking out manicures for her! When Devi’s behavior takes a turn for the worse, these two not only rely on each other but try to forge a bond with a new friend. This is seen as a betrayal in Devi’s eyes, but the series allows these young women to communicate and advocate for themselves and each other especially when one is acting selfish. This allows the friends to remain each other’s pillars of empowerment not allowing boys, their eccentric mothers, nor their various forms of sexual expressions to ruin their bond. At the end, it is their strong connection that snaps Devi back to reality making her reconcile with her mother, gives Fabiola the courage to come out as gay to her conservative mother and empowers Eleanor to confront her mother and embrace her artistic talent.
Devi is not the typical “shy, introverted, nerd.” She’s bold, brave, cynical at times , but wears her heart on her sleeve. Due to her already gregarious and spontaneous personality, Devi’s way of coping with her father’s death is by pushing down those painful memories. Looking for external validation and attention, Devi tries and fails to: have sex with her crush, be there when her friends really need her, control her ever erupting emotions, fix herself instead of others. Her saving grace is Dr. Ryan played by Niecey Nash, who reminds Devi that instead of ignoring her feelings or replacing them with sex or anger, it’s okay to feel grief, loss, loneliness, and confusion.
As Devi goes through through these stages of grief, and destroying anything and anyone in her way, she starts seeing her father everywhere. When “he comes to her” in the form of a cayote, instead discouraging her, Dr. Ryan asks Devi to talk to him. Though this does not go the way they plan, it starts peeling back a repressed memory involving her parents. This reveals not only how much she loves and misses her father’s guidance, but informs her of underlyng and unresolved issues with her mother. The confrontation is explosive and emotional but ultimately necessary for Devi’s personal growth. It is then, at her lowest, at her loneliest, that Devi is able to see her mother’s side/her grief. Devi realizes that the best way to honor her father’s memory is to reconnect with her mother because she too is trying to cope with an unbearable loss.
Though the first season is narrated by two white men, John McEnroe and Andy Samberg , (episode 6), the show is filled with people of color. The teen angst is there but with modern nuances and a great exploration of dynamic and self empowered young women.
A must watch if you liked it:
All the Boys I love Before
10 Things I Hate About You