Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ is the updated high school story our times deserve

Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ is the updated high school story our times deserve

Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ is the updated high school story our times deserve

Photos courtesy of Netflix

 

In almost all of the high school flicks I saw when I was growing up, the lead character (along with most of the cast) was always these three things: straight, white, and American. I didn’t even realize that there weren’t a lot of people of color in the mainstream junk I consumed until I was older, because the culture I grew up in American ideals on a pedestal. In my mind, what was American (which is to say, white, straight, and middle-class) was universal.

But a lot has changed since then. Thanks to the TV gods — and the increasingly demanding people who watch — mainstream young adult content has gotten a lot more diverse. Now there are more stories from people from all over the world being told, with different cultures getting their fair share of the spotlight. 

One such show is Netflix’s new series called Never Have I Ever, which comes from creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. It tells the story of Devi Vishwakumar (played by newcomer Maitreyi Riamakrishnan), a first generation Indian-American high schooler. While the show’s gist is very much an American typical high school story, it brings many unique perspectives to the spotlight. 

First off, there is Devi: in the show’s trailer, the 15-year-old prays to the many, many Indian gods to bestow upon her a “normal” sophomore year — to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs (she promises she won’t do them; she just wants the opportunity to coolly refuse) and a hot boyfriend. 

She asks for normalcy because the previous year had been anything but: in the middle of a music recital (Devi plays the harp), her father Mohan dies of a heart attack. A week later, Devi’s legs become paralyzed and she is confined to a wheelchair. However, Devi is magically healed at the sight of the hottest boy in school, half-Japanese Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).

The rest of the cast is just as diverse: Devi’s two best friends are Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), the exuberant president of the drama club, and Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez), the tomboyish captain of the school’s robotics team. The first of only two prominent white guys in the series is Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), Devi’s academic nemesis. Both Ben and Devi are academic overachievers, fighting to top each other in each and every way, so much so that they split all of the school’s club between them in a truce that would keep them from pulling each other’s hair out. The other white dude is the ‘80s tennis star John McEnroe, who for some reason (it’s explained later) is the show’s narrator.

In true high school flick fashion, the three girls set out to become cooler by getting themselves boyfriends. But this mission flies off the rails just as soon as the plan is set in motion: Eleanor ends up dating one of the drama club’s tech guys (controversial, apparently), Fabiola realizes that maybe boys aren’t her thing, and Devi tries to hit on the flamboyant token-gay-guy-who-hasn’t-come-out-yet, which leads her to just f*ck it and shoot her shot with Paxton by boldly asking him to sleep with her. 

Antics aside, the show makes a great effort to flesh out its ensemble cast, focusing instead on the characters’ backgrounds rather than whether or not they score some dick. Fabiola deals with coming out to her family, Eleanor grapples with her mom leaving her to become a cruise liner actress (only to find her waiting tables close to home), and Devi, of course, struggles with her Indian heritage and her father’s death. On the other hand, Ben has trouble getting his parents to pay more attention to him, and Paxton is secretive about his sister who has Down syndrome, but only because he doesn’t want her to get hurt.

These are struggles that the actors can relate to as well. When I asked them over the phone about which character they related to the most, it became obvious that the show’s casting was pretty spot on. “I can hands-down easily relate to Devi the most,” says Maitereyi. “She feels too Indian around people that aren’t, and not Indian enough when around people that look like her.” This was something Maitereyi experienced for herself in high school, growing up Tamil-Canadian. She adds, “Now I’m in a place where I’m comfortable with my identity, but back then, that was really complicated for me to figure out.”

While Darren was able to relate to Paxton from the get-go, he took the role as an opportunity to learn more about people with disabilities. “Although I’ve had friends with Down syndrome, I’ve never directly been around someone with Down syndrome day after day,” he shares. He talked to a friend whose younger brother had Down syndrome, and asked her what growing up with that dynamic was like. Darren adds, “She said, ‘I’m gonna be honest: you always understand that there is a disability, but they’re also your sibling; you get mad at your siblings and that’s just how things go,’ so I kind of took that in, which is something I never thought (if it weren’t for Paxton).”

All of these details make the show unique, but it also casts a wider net in terms of what audiences can relate to. Even as a non-American watching the show, there’s a whole lot. One whole episode is dedicated to the Indian celebration of Ganesh Pooja, which reminded me of a church gathering or a family reunion where all the titas do nothing but gossip and give each other back-handed compliments. I certainly LOLed when Devi grunts that her cousin Kamala (who is living with Devi and her mom while getting her doctorate) says to “open the TV” instead of “turn on the TV.”

The show also highlights what immigrant parents give up in chasing the American dream. Despite being a successful dermatologist, Devi’s mother wants to move back to India because she longs for the support of her family since her husband passed away. In the Philippines where many are forced to work abroad away from their families, and in a time when travel is restricted, these feelings will strike a chord.

All these serious topics may make it seem like Never Have I Ever is a serious show, but really, it’s still a high school sitcom. The show is packaged in highly-bingeable 30-minute episodes, with Devi getting into all sorts of trouble with her mom, school, and friends. Mindy and Lang keep things light but meaningful nonetheless. This helps to make the show’s melting pot of representation seem all the more normalized, as it should be in 2020. My only wish is that I saw this when I was in high school.

 

 

Never Have I Ever premieres on Netflix on Monday, Apr. 27. For more information, follow the show on Instagram at @neverhaveiever.

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