Words || Jodie Ramodien
Never Have I Ever more or less follows the story of a 15-year-old Mindy Kaling reimagined into this decade’s modern teenager. We follow the character of Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who enters the first day of sophomore year with a plan – be popular so you can have sex with hot guys.
Off the bat this show is refreshing in a number of ways. Growing up there were so many shows that treated women’s virginity like a ‘delicate flower’ or a ‘gift’ to be given. Contrast this to the triumphant and celebratory way a man losing his virginity is and you can see the disproportionate responses. NHIE engages in a role reversal as we see Devi chasing her love interest, and expressing a shallow desire for the show’s main ‘heartthrob’ Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).
This brings us to the next incredibly refreshing aspect of this show – the diversity. The trope Paxton embodies is that of the hot jock/cool guy. This character is usually straight, white, and rich, the trifecta of privilege. If it’s the early 2000s he’s probably also played by Chad Michael Murray. Breaking with tradition, co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher create characters with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexualities, and place a spotlight on them instead of falling prey to the tokenism of past shows. We get to experience high school through the lens of Devi, a first generation Indian-American. How many white TV families and ensemble casts have there been? Modern Family, The Simpsons, The O.C., One Tree Hills, Friends, How I Met Your Mother etc. To see a family from another culture highlighted in an authentic way, through the lens of a writer that has grown up in that culture gives nuance and genuine humour to watching and understanding these characters.
In an interview with the New York Times, Kaling was asked what the next frontier for South Asian representation was for her as a creator. She answered:
“From watching several hundred of the auditions [for the role of Devi], I saw the hunger that I kind of hoped that was there. If this show does well, hopefully, and it just feels more normal to see Indian people on things, then there will hopefully be more shows greenlit. To me it would be great if there is more L.G.B.T.Q. content for Indian people. I feel like that is almost never talked about. In some Indian communities there’s still a stigma attached to coming out. I’d love to tell a story about a young queer woman. And if I don’t see it, maybe I have to create something.”
While NHIE’s diversity and subverted gender roles are examples of why the show is so compelling, what holds everything together and makes it great is the humour. Mindy Kaling famously loves romantic comedies and so do I. That said, the rom-com is undoubtedly a trashy genre. I’m not blind to the ridiculous leaps of logic, impossible coincidences labelled as ‘fate,’ and overall warped conceptualisation of love that appears in these movies. A lot of times rom-coms actually cross the line in portraying abusive relationships as ‘romantic.’ This kind of abusive behaviour usually includes stalking, and men who never stop chasing, interpreting the word ‘no’ as ‘not yet’ or ‘try harder,’ particularly prevalent among the ‘nice guy’ character – that’s you Ted Mosby. The list of these unhealthy tropes goes on. Mindy Kaling takes this genre, rids it of its more deluded, fantastical, and toxic elements, and reimagines it as a TV series. Something she previously did in another one of her shows, The Mindy Project.
As each episode follows Devi in her quest to bag a “stone cold hottie” and come to grips with her father’s sudden and tragic death, we hear the voice of legendary tennis hot head John McEnroe narrating. Devi, like McEnroe, has a similar quick-tempered disposition, which opens the door for McEnroe to throw out a number of hilarious and self-aware tennis references. While teen drama and retired tennis players don’t initially appear to go hand-in-hand, the show addresses this in it’s first episode, McEnroe reassuring us that “It’ll make sense later, I promise.” You don’t need to be a massive tennis fan to enjoy this aspect of the show, but since I personally am it definitely adds to the appeal. Look up “John McEnroe tantrums” on YouTube to watch some of his greatest hits. Finally, to sweeten the pot of an already great show, guest star Andy Samberg narrates an episode, highlighting another standout character: Ben (Jaren Lewison). Never Have I Ever is currently streaming on Netflix. Go check it out!