Never Have I Ever review: Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show takes desi drama worldwide
Never Have I Ever review: Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographical Netflix show is part teen romance, part coming-of-age comedy, featuring an excellent performance by Poorna Jagannathan.
Never Have I Ever
Creators - Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Cast - Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Sendhil Ramamurthy
One of the biggest ironies about Never Have I Ever is something that’ll most likely slip under the radar. The protagonist of the new Netflix show is called Devi, the Sanskrit word for ‘goddess’, but that’s probably the last word anyone would use to describe her.
Played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who was chosen from 15000 possible candidates in an open casting call, Devi is a brash, slightly arrogant teenager with a tendency to get herself into trouble. This is perhaps one of the reasons why creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher came up with the brilliant idea to cast the famously ill-mannered tennis legend John McEnroe as the show’s narrator.
Watch the Never Have I Ever trailer here
McEnroe is a born showman, so the fact that his acerbic, Arrested Development-style narration is the highlight of Never Have I Ever shouldn’t come as a surprise, but who knew he was this funny? To hear him describe Indian aunties — “Aunties are old Indian women who have no relation to you but are allowed to have opinions about your life and shortcomings” — is glorious.
And the aunties certainly have a lot to say about young Devi. She’d like to think of herself as someone who has ‘the beauty of Priyanka Chopra and the incisive intellect of RBG’, but in reality, she’s struggling to cope with the death of her father, the demands of being an American teenager, and the pressures of living up to her mother’s Indian ideals.
Part teen romance, part coming-of-age comedy, Never Have I Ever is a delicately written little show, an immigrant tale that feels just about authentic enough to survive in a world where Master of None and Little America exist. Aesthetically, it’s more of a sitcom than either of those two shows; something like Fresh Off the Boat, but it does a much better job at balancing the comedy and the drama.
One of its quieter achievements is its characterisation of Devi’s mother, Nalini, played by Poorna Jagannathan. It’s a layered role — perhaps unexpectedly so — one that requires Jagannathan to wear several caps. A widow, a single mother and a driven professional, Nalini is often called to switch between these roles at the drop of a ‘topi’. It might be slightly alarming for American audiences to watch a mother threaten her daughter with casual violence, but Jagannathan’s performance never allows Nalini to slip into the stereotype of a strict South Asian parent. She’s strong-willed and fiercely independent, but also prone to moments of vulnerability.
But it’ll be even more alarming for American audiences to watch Indian characters who, with the exception of cousin Kamala, do not sound like some sort of racist caricature. At its core, Never Have I Ever — which don’t get me wrong, spends a lot of time on Devi’s pursuit of the school heartthrob — is a story about three women. To the foreign eye, Nalini, Devi and Kamala are simply immigrants. But each of them is written with depth, and the show is very empathetic to its supporting characters, to the point that Devi’s storyline sometimes feels secondary.
But Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a gifted actor. Often, Devi’s behaviour is repulsive — she’s selfish, ungrateful and petty -- but that’s what makes her a real person. Never Have I Ever slaps on a thick layer of brown on a white-washed industry, and takes desi drama worldwide.