Mindy Kaling’s new series drops on Netflix today and it is an absolute charmfest, a perfectly balanced cocktail of wry humour, laugh-out-loud moments and emotionally poignant beats.
What it is, is a TV show that’s perfectly suited to our pandemic times – something that’s super bingeable, hopeful and diverting but also really wonderfully written and performed so as to not just pump your veins with digestible, forgettable, tune-out crap.
Never Have I Ever may be a series about a teenager, but any adult with a heart and a sense of humour will find much to like, plus John McEnroe is the narrator so his voice is a great hook for anyone sceptical about the show being “too young”.
Created by Kaling and Lang Fisher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project), Never Have I Ever is a 10-episode series about an Indian-American teenager named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) in Los Angeles’ Valley area.
Devi is a sophomore in high school and she and her two buds, Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), aren’t exactly part of the cool crowd, but that doesn’t mean she’s not longing to hook up with Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the most desired boy in school and part of the “Hot Pocket” crew.
Paxton is like this current generation’s Jordan Catalano, the role that Jared Leto played in My So-Called Life, the one-season teen series from 1994 that spring-boarded Claire Danes and Leto to fame.
He’s beautiful, popular, a little academically challenged and has more going on than his cool, taciturn exterior suggests – and seemingly out of Devi’s reach, much like Jordan was out of Angela Chase’s.
Devi is desperate for a boyfriend after a bruising year in which her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) died of a heart attack while in the audience of her orchestra concert, an event that traumatised her so much she became paralysed for some months.
Straining to see Paxton at the supermarket was enough to get her out of that wheelchair.
Her mother Nalini (The Night Of’s Poorna Jagannathan) is a strict disciplinarian and mother and daughter constantly clash over parties, boys and things Devi wants to do to be a “normal” American teen.
Devi also sees a therapist (Niecy Nash) to cope with the grief she’s been suppressing since her father’s death but is more of a sounding board for her various shenanigans at home and at school, which also includes a rivalry with Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), a high-achiever with wealthy but neglectful parents.
While a lot of the story and character points are well-trodden ground, Never Have I Ever brings them all together in a way that feels fresh.
It’s not just that the lead character is an Indian-American teen who believes her cultural background doesn’t align with her desire to fit in, or that the teens at Sherman Oaks High School are a diverse bunch with mixed-race and LGBTQI characters – those things are part of what makes it fresh but they wouldn’t be enough on their own.
It’s that Never Have I Ever lets them all be fully realised people with interior lives and complex, sometimes contradictory emotions – no one here is short-changed or stereotyped, and that goes for the adults too, which includes Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Shukla), a graduate student at CalTech.
Ramakrishnan, a Canadian actor picked by Kaling from an open casting call, is a star and oozes empathy and charisma. It’s a real breakout role for the young actor and it’s remarkable that someone so young and inexperienced can carry a series with such confidence.
McEnroe’s voiceover is a witty and complementary anchor to the show’s goings-on, and as the audience becomes more familiar with the characters, is less used as the season goes on. It was a clever touch to have McEnroe VO as himself, offering up titbits about his career and popping up in person in a cameo in the season finale.
There is one episode about midway through which shifts to Ben’s perspective and that chapter is narrated by Andy Samberg.
Never Have I Ever is more than just another high school-set comedy, there’s a poignancy to it that finds its catharsis by season’s end, and you may surprise yourself with how emotional it, and you, become.
That’s when you’ll know for certain that this brilliantly written and winning series sunk its hooks right into you.