Mindy Kaling celebrates horny girl power
When Mindy Kaling’s new, loosely self-inspired show, Never Have I Ever, finally hit Netflix, my primary desire was to push through my lingering infectious COVID-19 stupor to watch this show. Okay, breathing and sitting upright were actually my top goals. But Never Have I Ever did pop onto the recovery to-do list somewhere. When my hacking finally subsided enough to allow a little focus, I settled in, anticipating distraction and joy, which Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher’s show ably offers.
Though we haven’t bonded over drinks, shopped together, or spent time spitballing ideas in her writer’s room, Kaling exudes this welcoming vibe that makes a lady feel like with a skosh of razzle-dazzle and an appropriate level of hustle, anything could happen. The characters she creates believe in magic, romance, and most assuredly, themselves, which really compels a viewer to hang out with them.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, an exuberantly uncool sophomore eager to leave the embarrassment of her freshman year behind. She plans to start school with her best foot forward, hoping no one remembers that last year, she couldn’t even walk, because somehow the trauma of her father’s death left her mysteriously wheelchair-bound.
Her omniscient narrator, the notoriously hotheaded tennis legend John McEnroe, fills us in on Devi’s dark backstory, but whatever; those are last year’s problems. Now, Devi prays for less arm hair, an invite to a cool party with cocaine (so she can turn it down), and a hottie to rock her world. She doesn’t even care if he’s dumb. Devi’s fifteen, so obviously she’s self-obsessed, but not hopelessly so. After all, she wants her two uberdork best friends, Eleanor and Fabiola, to learn how to be cool, too.
Right out of the gate, Never Have I Ever rides a wackily precarious roller coaster. It effortlessly gender-swaps the horndog teen boy trope, hints at enough dark flashback fodder to fuel any of the good seasons of Lost, and invites an old white man from Queens to narrate the story of a first-generation Indian girl growing up in Cali. To paraphrase Kelly Kapoor, how dare they? Yet dare they do. This show unabashedly builds its own wacky, awkward world that, like the best comedies, exaggerates reality while keeping the feels real. Nothing about it should work, but the breezy assuredness of the storytelling, the charismatic players, and upbeat style make for a highly watchable show about a grieving, lonely teen.
Rather than dwell on the sadness of her father’s passing, or address her strained relationship with her mother, Devi instead fixates on Paxton, The Hottest Boy in School. When her therapist suggests she should pursue something that will bring her joy, Devi immediately knows the secret to her own success. She musters her courage, approaches Paxton, and asks him to have sex. He’s a teen boy, so of course he says yes, and his easy willingness to do It changes Devi’s entire self-perception and internal trajectory.
Devi’s relentless efforts to score could play as one note, but her desperation to belong, do well, and be wanted are painfully universal. Sometimes she fails her friends, focusing on herself while they struggle with sexual identity and family issues. She can be bitingly cruel in the way of young women who don’t yet know their power, lobbing taunts at her academic rival Ben one minute, then casually cutting her grieving mother to the core in another. Devi is the outsider we’ve all been at some point, but nobody’s ever put her onscreen before.
That’s not to say Never Have I Ever is perfect. The storytelling wobbles and the pacing can be stilted. The wheelchair backstory feels random, and the show was rich enough without adding in a device just to toss it out again. Often, Devi’s bluntness plays as charming, but other times, her awkwardness misses the mark. There’s a deep well of material to mine, but the show only takes intermittent dives under the surface, and comes up far too fast.
Episode six takes yet another risk by switching to life from rival Ben’s point of view, as told by Andy Samberg. While the episode isn’t bad, exactly, it feels showy rather than necessary. While Devi’s life is somewhat of a sprawling mess, the peripheral issues experienced by her live-in cousin Kamala and her peers seem to resolve quickly and tidily, with few lasting ramifications (so far). It’s noble the show strives to give every single character a life of their own, but perhaps a tad too ambitious within the confines of a Netflix season.
Though it’s flawed, this is a show the universe was clearly hype to include. When Devi, Eleanor, and Fabiola try to prepare for sex like total nerds, via research and quizzes involving teddy bears in sexually explicit poses, it perfectly captures what it’s like to be a teen, overflowing with all life’s desires and none of its knowledge. When Paxton casually peels off his shirt, ready to sex Devi up, her eyes pop and she flat out ogles him, which felt like something I’d never seen in that particular context; I wondered what my life would be like, right now, if I’d grown up with a character like Devi, normalizing all those things young women bungle their way through without ever really talking about them. Never Have I Ever watched a show quite like this before, but I’m super glad it exists now.