Netflix’s new teen drama/comedy series Never Have I Ever caught me completely off-guard. In the first few episodes, I was completely ready to “smack” Devi, our protagonist, since the brown person in me had had enough of her tantrums. But by the end of it, I was left feeling weirdly mushy and a crying mess.
Never Have I Ever is an important series. I have grown up watching and loving Bend It Like Beckham, the 2002 movie by Gurinder Chadha as well as her other movie, Bride and Prejudice. Those were the epitome of what Indian life is like in America and naïve me thought one day I’d get to live that life too. But then I grew up and… well. That’s a story for another time.
Smacking… or maybe not
Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Devi, the Sanskrit word for ‘goddess’, is anything but that. She’s brash and arrogant and absolutely intolerable. She recently lost her father in a tragic accident and has gone through too much pain in her life. However, as I mentioned before, the brown girl in me, inspite of knowing and understand all her pain and suffering, was furious when she called her mother the b-word. She throws her books out of a closed window, shattering it in the process and something like that would definitely have gotten me slapped at home. As Nalini puts it after threating to hit her, “smacking is an acceptable punishment in many third-world countries.”
It is no surprise, thus, when we hear that the show’s narrator is the brilliantly ill-mannered tennis legend John McEnroe, who also makes a sweet cameo in the end. His and Devi’s temperaments are a match made in heaven.
So many feelings
The biggest positive about Never Have I Ever is that the show does not try to portray Devi in a positive light ever. She is always raw and all of her flaws are always out in the open for everyone to see. Her pain at the loss of her father is absolutely heart-breaking. It shattered her so much that she lost the ability to walk for three months after the tragedy.
Devi also isn’t some helpless little girl who has a backup plan. Most of the times, her backup plan is screaming or breaking things. Honestly, I understood, because all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt that (although we haven’t done anything similar because of the aforementioned smacking). The fact that she tries to forget her problems with the help of boys is also very real. I remember when I was a teenager, fitting in and finding a boyfriend seemed like the most important things in life. And thus, we feel bad for and angry at Devi when she ditches her friends to go meet Paxton. We are as confused as our protagonist.
Arcs that we like
Another very beautiful thing about Never Have I Ever is that all the characters have such great arcs. We have Devi’s friends, Eleanor and Fabiola, who have their own demons to tend to. The former realises in the middle of the hall on a random school day that she is gay while the latter tries to find validation from her mother who really doesn’t care about her. We also have Devi’s cousin Kamala, who just had her first boyfriend is trapped in an arranged marriage orchestrated by her parents. It’s a very real problem for desi girls and Kamala realising that Steve isn’t the one for her is a big victory for her personally. We also have Nalini, Devi’s mother, who, although is very strict on her daughter, loves her but is unable to showcase it.
Even the people who probably should not be that important to the story are what keeps it going. Paxton, Devi’s crush, is a confused teenager and their slowly budding friendship is heart-warming to watch, even though he really is kind of a douche. Ben, who is always at loggerheads with Devi, is also a heart-warming character. I cried during the episode which focused on him, because loneliness is something we all probably fight against each and every day. His and Devi’s changing dynamics and her finally realising that she might have fallen for him, really did it for me. It was probably the best way to end the series.
But all the drama and emotions do not take away from the show’s humour. Never Have I Ever is a delicate balance between drama and humour. The part where the entire family goes to attend a Ganesh Puja was probably the funniest part of the show. I can attest that brown aunties do indeed behave like that. There are more such subtle, and not so subtle, moments of fun in the show and it offsets the deep emotional weight that you might sometimes tend to feel.
Performances and all that
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi V is a revelation. Her performance does not, for one second, give away the fact that she is a first-time actor. Devi’s repulsive behaviour – her selfishness, pettiness and ungratefulness but deep sadness underneath it all – is brilliantly portrayed by Maitreyi. She constantly tries to make herself and everyone else believe that she is more American than Indian and is constantly trying to get her mother’s approval. You end up sympathising with and loving her because she is so real.
My most favourite character in the series, however, was Nalini. Poorna Jagannathan as Devi’s mother was infuriating as well. She’s too strict on her daughter, something Indian parents are famous for. American audiences might be alarmed at her threats of casual violence, but she never lets that be her defining character. She’s strong and does not give away her feelings easily. But underneath it all, she is just a mother in a foreign land who is trying to get over the loss of the love of her life. It’s heart-breaking and empowering. Her vulnerability under a tough exterior will probably remind you for your own parents, and the things that they do for us.
At the end…
Never Have I Ever is one of the most brilliant shows that I have watched in some time. If you can get over the irritation of the first few episodes (trust me, Devi is annoying af), it’s a beautiful coming-of-age series that never really strays from its end goal – to showcase the strength of the three women in the Vishwakumar house.
Also, Mohan, I miss you. Why do the good characters always die first? ☹
Never Have I Ever is available on Netflix right now. Stream it here.