The streaming platform Netflix has recently made headlines by being one of the first production companies to feature a show with an Indian-American lead, Never Have I Ever. The show, developed by writer and actress Mindy Kaling, centers around the life of Devi Vishwakumar. Played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Devi, an overachieving sophomore in a high-school located in the San Fernando Valley, is a sharp-tongued, hot-headed teenager navigating the struggles of discovering her identity as a second-generation immigrant, the loss of her father, boy problems, and anger-inducing hormones; you know, the usual teenage problems. Devi’s story is complicated by her single mother, Nalini (Big Little Lies’ Poorna Jagannathan), as well as the arrival of her annoyingly gorgeous cousin Kamala (singer and dancer Richa Moorjani).
First things first: Let’s talk about stereotyping
For a show so seemingly progressive, my immediate thoughts were that it was riddled with stereotypes. Stereotypes, it seemed, were essentially the backbone of the show. It’s important to understand that not all stereotypes are bad; many are rooted in truths, and simply reflect the diverse and inherently defining characteristics of different cultures. However, I really wished that the stereotyping the show enforced had taken a different route.
The first of many examples of stereotyping was reflected in Devi’s overachieving nature. Something that I, as the daughter of two Indian immigrants, desperately wanted to see reflected in the series was the mindset that many Indians have when it comes to hard work. Although we are negatively subjected and ridiculed to titles like spelling/math bee champ or teacher’s pet, these titles are the product of a mentality harbored by both Indians and immigrants alike. The premise of the American Dream, and to really make it in the U.S., is what denotes many immigrants as hard-working hustlers. However, I was disappointed to see in the show that Devi, a supposed top of her class, stellar student, had no career aspirations or goals for the future other than getting into Princeton.
The show makes it almost too easy for me to point out its stereotypes; the beautifully light-skinned Indian model (Kamala), the rich-Jewish kid (Ben), the quirky besties of color (Eleanor and Fabiola, who I’ll refer to again and again in just a moment), the feminine gay guy (Jonah), the subsequent masculine lesbian (Fabiola), the STEM kid devoid of social-skills (Again, Fabiola!), and the dumb (but hot!) love interest (Paxton). Like I mentioned before, stereotyping is definitely somewhat rooted in truths. However, the show was absolutely riddled with tropes to the point that it seemed unrealistic. I mean, some characters’ entire storyline relied on their identities as POC/minorities (Fabiola, for example). Something that I’d love to see represented more in mainstream television is the relationship between femininity and queerness. Again, that part may just be me being picky…but what REALLY irked me was that we never got to witness Fabiola’s passions to the same extent as other characters. Nearly every scene of hers was dedicated to her “coming-out” storyline, whereas both Devi and Eleanor were fully-developed, complex characters with dialogue that reflected their quirks and individual spunk. Do better, Netflix.
Overall “Cringe” Factor
Let’s move past stereotyping and onto another part of the show I found particularly gag-worthy: the cringe factor. At times I PHYSICALLY winced at the characters’ conversations; at others, I watched from the comfort of the little gap between the hands covering my eyes. I totally understood the need for a teen awkwardness factor, and it was definitely refreshing seeing teenagers played by actors that weren’t 25. That being said, as much as I really hate to do so, I definitely noticed some gaping continuity errors here. If Devi was so intelligent and easily able to excel in school, why was she a HORRENDOUS decision-maker? Maybe this was purposeful, maybe I’m being hypercritical at this point. But as a young Indian-women myself, I’ll be honest; I feel TOTALLY qualified to be reviewing this show. It really did pain me to see a smart, self-assured female drop nearly everything for a guy.
Its Saving Grace
I know, I know. This review has been pretty harshly-worded so far. But all in all, I thought the show was…sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Sure, it had its hiccups– the occasional vomit-inducing dialogue, the poorly written male characters, and the abundance of stereotyping– but it definitely had its share of wins. Standout performances of the show would definitely go to Ramakrishnan, Moorjani, and Jaren Lewinson (Ben). Ramakrishnan had a job similar to that of beloved child-actor Zachary Gordon in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise; although she acted like a jerk at times, she had to ensure that the audience was rooting for her. Moorjani was so sweet as kind-hearted Kamala, which I found a lovely substitute to the pretty mean-girl trope, and Lewinson’s Ben was just wonderful. Overall, I would rate Never Have I Ever an apologetic 6.5/10. Here’s my honest opinion of the show; it was predictable. Every trope in the book, every high-school rom-com cliché…but what truly saved it was the precedent it set. Seeing an Indian-American lead be able to, for the first time, experience those cringe-inducing high-school tropes was refreshing, and the show’s overall colorful, spunky aesthetic made the entire experience fun. Memorable? Not really. But light-hearted? Sweet? Good binging material? For sure.
The parting message I want to leave all of you with is ironically worded best by Ramakrishnan herself. She passionately asserted the following in a heartfelt Instagram caption: “Now more than ever, I’ve realized how important realistic representation is. Especially as a Tamil-Canadian myself. I’m happy to be a part of a show that tells one story out of the many from the South Asian community. But still, it’s only one story.” Never Have I Ever is just one of the many television series, movies, books, songs, and poems that are yet to be written about our experiences. This Asian-Pacific Heritage month, let’s continue to support representation for South-Asians across the media, recognize and encourage the incredible work of barrier-shattering South-Asian artists, and embrace our inherent identities as storytellers to educate American audiences about the intricacies of our cultures.