Not many teen dramas open on the main protagonist praying. But then again, ‘Never Have I Ever’, the brainchild of sitcom favourite Mindy Kaling, isn’t your average teen drama. “Hey gods, it’s Devi Vishwakumar, your favourite Hindu girl in the San Fernando valley, what’s popping?” says Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian-American high-schooler. “I think we can all agree that last year sucked for a number of reasons, so I’ve been thinking of a way you can make it up to me.” The deal? Get Devi invited to a party involving alcohol and hard drugs (so she can turn them down), help her arm hair thin out, and arrange for a stone-cold hottie to be her boyfriend (“he can be dumb, I don’t care”). Basically, fulfil all of the usual dreams of a teenage romcom lead.
Co-created by Kaling and Lang Fisher (The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Netflix‘s latest coming-of-age queen is an over-achieving, self-absorbed sophomore desperate to be part of the ‘it’ crowd. Longing for a boyfriend, she sets her sites on heartthrob Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), a chiselled member of the school swim team, who she attempts to woo. She’s supported by her two pals – robotics whizz Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), and drama club president Eleanor (Ramona Young), who reluctantly go along with Devi’s increasingly hair-brained schemes.
On the surface, this is yet another schmaltzy Netflix series aimed at young girls – but wash away the mawkish surface layer and there’s a poignant story about family bonds and shared grief to be told. Eight months ago, Devi’s father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) suddenly died of a heart attack during her school concert. Shortly after, Devi was unexplainably paralysed from the waist down, unable to walk. Going into the new school year Devi has regained the use of her legs and is determined to lose her nerdy reputation; but despite sessions with glamorous therapist Dr Ryan (Niecy Nash), she hasn’t yet managed to process her feelings.
Along her journey, Devi is supported by dermatologist mum Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), who’s strict parenting style creates a complex dynamic between the two; and her elder cousin Kamala (Richa Shukla), who’s grappling with whether she wants an arranged marriage – and if so, whether she should dump her American boyfriend. The mother-daughter bond between Devi and Nalini is fraught as both try to make sense of the pain they’re experiencing; but throughout the duo’s fiery arguments you find yourself rooting for the two to make up.
The other thing that makes this show much more than its clichéd format, is the narration, which features legendary tennis player John McEnroe in a standout performance. Whether he’s hilariously relating Devi’s frequent temper tantrums or detailing aspects of the family’s culture, like Indian wedding tradition Ganesh Puja, McEnroe (hand-picked by Kaling for the job) makes a contribution to the show that is endlessly charming.
It’s a weird flex casting McEnroe, but it’s these unconventional twists that make Never Have I Ever such a treat. Showrunners Kaling and Fisher make use of many genre tropes throughout this tongue-in-cheek exploration of trauma, but thanks to its screwball script and kooky characters, the result is a sharp, thoughtful comedy you’ll probably watch in one sitting.