Status: Finished Watching (03 May 2020)
Edition: Netflix India
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5)
Alert: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
When the trailer for Never Have I Ever (NHAI) dropped I was immediately equal parts excited and terrified. With a big name like Mindy Kaling backing up the entire production, I had faith in the diversity and representation it would bring. It had the potential to be the coming of age drama that I wish I’d had in the early-2000s when I was growing up.
Sadly, I can safely say: Never Have I Ever been more disappointed.
Before we deep dive into the maelstrom of what I didn’t like, I wanted to first take a moment to point out what I did. NHAI has an incredibly diverse cast, and tackles a lot of real issues that multiple communities face. From coming out, to figuring out your destiny in the light of following your parents footsteps, being raised in a negligent manner, and struggling with mental health and grief…the show deals with each of these in its own, unique way.
The side characters don’t exist just to prop up the main character, Devi, but also have their own stories and nuances (with some episodes being entirely dedicated to their stories) – and I love that.
Friends, Roman, Countrymen…lend me your ears.
For those of you who may not know what the show is about, here’s the SparkNotes version: Devi is a high school sophomore in Los Angeles, living with her international student cousin and single mother. After a tragic death in her family, which leads to a temporary psychosomatic paralysis of her legs, she is now starting a fresh year with the aim to reinvent herself. Surrounds her is a cast of her two best friends (Eleanor and Fabiola), her rival-turned-friend (Ben), and her hot-teen crush (Paxton Hall-Yoshida).
Over the course of the first season, we watch her misguided attempts fail drastically. What starts as a simple attempt to “be cool” and shoot up the ladder of social relevancy, turns into a complicated web of lies, hurt feelings, and betrayals to the people she cares the most about.
None of these characters are ignored or sidelined to prop Devi’s story. If anything, we get to see Devi through their eyes and get an unbiased perspective of her, as well. From Ben’s eyes, we see just how ruthless and violent she can be in her competitive nature (one that probably stems from the intense pressure that comes in an Asian household and living in an Asian community).
In Paxton’s eyes, she’s quirky but also not shy to use him to get to the top – to the point of lying about their sordid affair. He even reaches a stage of wanting to protect his sister from her, worried she’ll get caught in Devi’s intense, impulsive actions.
Eleanor and Fabiola are a slightly different story. As Devi’s closest friends, they love her and support her endlessly – even falling for some of her lies. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch them trust her – and who can blame them? She’s their best friend.
But somewhere along the way, even they realise she’s not who she claims to be. Her one-track mind to get them all boyfriends clearly makes Fabiola uncomfortable (who is questioning her own sexuality) and we see it all end in a disastrous breakdown where Fabiola ends up coming out in front of the whole school.
Similarly, Eleanor, who is known for her flair for the dramatic and love for theatre, loses her mother once more when she abandons her for Broadway. And Devi, is nowhere to be found to support her.
And this is where things start to blur into the grey area for me, quality-wise.
For me, personally, as “bad” or “morally grey” a character is, I can root for them if I find something worth believing in them. There are multiple coming of age stories where the main characters make bad, selfish choices which come to bite them in the a**. And I’m okay with that because we all learned things as teens the hard way.
I’m not sitting on a moral high horse. My own impulsive decisions when I was a teen make Devi look like a goddess (no pun intended).
Heavy is the Head
One of the most moving moments for me is that Devi so badly wants to make an identity for herself outside of her tragedy. As her therapist discusses with her (and I do love that she is shown to be receiving help, otherwise a stigma in Asian societies), she is almost ignoring the grief she feels. This same grief is manifesting into anger issues because she wants to be associated with anything but her tragedy. Sadly, the oxymoron of Devi’s story is that I only felt any kind of sympathy or connection to her when she is shown to be struggling with her tragedy.
Do I want this to be a sob story? No, I don’t. Devi is as human to me being silly, and judgy, and edgy, and rude – all things that come with being in the awkward skin of a brown teen in America. Perhaps this is a blame to lay on the editing and narration – which makes me feel no real sympathy for her actions, even the misguided ones.
There is also the fact that Devi is trying hard to claim her Indian identity without it being the sole thing that defines her. One of the most brilliant scenes, for me, is the conversation she has with the college coach about how being another Indian doesn’t make her special, and how she fumes at it because she never intended to be another Indian. She has worked hard for her merits and deserves to get in on them – not her tragedy, not her ethnic identity. Juxtaposed with the Ganesh Puja she is attending, it is one of the only two powerful scenes in the whole episode (I will get into why in a bit).
The other powerful scene from the Ganesh Puja episode happens to be her conversation with the boy who went off the college, and explained how easy it is to miss the community when you are not part of it. This is something I related with hard, having lived in California as a kid, and having studied in the UK for grad school.
Similarly, we have the lovely Kamala, who is torn between living up to her responsibilities and finding independence. Growing up in an arranged marriage culture, I can understand how she feels and found it relatable how she navigated the entire fiasco in the end. While a part of me hoped for her to have her own forbidden romance, for her to realistically take the small steps to freedom without hurting the people she loves was a kind of bravery that was unexpected but refreshing to see.
When Do The Laughs Turn Into Taunts
I’ve had a fair share of NRIs tell me that the polar views on the show are due to mismatch in expectations from those who are diaspora and those who live in the homeland. Having sailed in both boats, I can say there is some merit to this. Woke homelanders feel a searing, boiling anger any time India is insulted in a show. When the truth is that when you live abroad in a multicultural society, sometimes you end up hating who you are. It’s not a crime. It’s part of the process of coming to terms with internalised racism and outgrowing it.
Consider that the diaspora largely consists of families who have moved generations ago and carried with them outdated and old notions of Indian culture, further strengthened by the echo chambers of community pockets and their sole connection to home being elderly family members who are equally out of touch.
I mean, how often do we have that one NRI cousin visit us and get shocked when they see a Bollywood movie with someone making out, or realise we have Amazon and Uber and no longer need them bring us a bazillion things from abroad? Their views of the homeland are largely defined by the terrible experiences of their parents and grandparents who left Asia for a reason.
And it’s not like we don’t laugh at ourselves too. The nosy aunties, the forced participation in cultural events (the half-sari thing was a nice touch, something I’ve personally heard a lot of my Tamil friends get annoyed by), the strict rules about dating and curfews and what to eat. But when it’s being narrated to me by a white narrator, it sounds less like an in-community laugh and more like a taunt. I have to wonder, if the small difference of having Mindy herself – or some other South Asian – narrating the story of Devi would’ve made all the difference.
Instead we get an old white idol of her dad’s, who doesn’t actually lend much to the story other than making Indian culture sound like a museum spectacle that he’s the tour guide of. Not to mention, the gross awkwardness of an elderly dude narrating the finer points of growing up, sex, puberty, etc. of a bunch of young, POC girls (something which isn’t excusable just because he says “This is uncomfortable for me” at one point). His narration of the show makes the whole thing less inclusive, more voyeuristic.
In fact, the only episode of narration I enjoyed was with Andy Samberg – and no it’s not because I’m a major Andy fan. It’s because his episode was dedicated to the narrating the story of someone with his ethnic background.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with this show.
Honest Insight or Free Pass
I mentioned before that all of us South Asians tend to laugh at the idiosyncrasies of our own cultures. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why many people found the show to be funny. But from the consensus I’ve seen – and as I suspected – most of the audience laughing are older generation immigrants and older millennials, making it very obvious the age gap between the main characters and the producers. Combined with the older narrators, the tone of the show is less like Devi’s story, and more like Devi’s story being told by their history teacher – a sad, flop attempt at being relevant and funny that only parents might find funny.
I think it reminds me of how I personally felt watching an old interview of Mindy’s where I got the feeling she wasn’t proud of being Indian – or how I sometimes feel watching Priyanka Chopra do her interviews now. It is the position of an older NRI who has seen a different kind of struggle of being Indian in the west compared to today’s generation. Another fact is that experiences are varied depending on where you grow up – a sole Indian in a white school in a small town vs. a multi-cultural school in the Valley.
For us younger millennials who are Kamala’s age (me) and Gen Z (Devi’s age), everything hits off the mark. There are things done and said that aren’t funny. Her tendency to call people “broke-ass” or laugh at misogynistic jokes? The way she so easily jokes about being a closeted-gay person’s beard and using them. The completely uncalled for Nazi comment, which is never properly addressed. Her own marvel at Paxton knowing to speak Japanese when he’s clearly got a Japanese heritage. The comments she makes about her life being ruined in a wheelchair, which don’t hit the mark when coming from an abled person (or the rather weird, non comedic manner of her recovery). The way she mocks Kamala’s English speaking abilities and accent, despite the fact that she’s studying at a prestigious university and is clearly very intelligent.
These are not things that would make her acceptable in any way today. It reminds me of the scene in 21 Jump Street, when the undercover cops bully and harass their way into the parking lot only to realise what’s acceptable to say and do in high school has changed drastically.
Moreover, they seem out of place when you consider how she behaves otherwise. When she rightfully calls out the racism of being called the UN, or with the counsellor? When she realises the horror of someone being outed forcibly. There are countless occasions where she is shown to recognise the nuances of microaggressive behaviour.
I think my favourite scene when she does this is at the coffee shop when she has to deal with the white family treating her like a Mystical Oriental Other, and is then bullied into taking a picture she doesn’t want to take just because it’s a white child asking. It alludes to a larger picture of how many homelanders actually don’t mind doing that sort of thing because they’re not as well-versed in the own-experience of the consequences of cultural otherisation, costumisation, and appropriation.
And yet, yet, the show continues moving in circles between making her a woke Gen Z kid versus trying to get some laughs out of the older audiences by showing microaggressive jokes. What struck me worse was how the show in itself did not do enough research to accurately comment on the culture we come from.
A simple instance would be the montage used for Ganesh Puja, which used videos of Durga Puja, Dasara, Navratri and weddings instead of the actual varied ways Ganesh Puja is celebrated. But what is deeper rooted is the self-contradiction of wanting to make a commentary and missing the mark.
One of the simplest instances of this is the moment when Devi drags American teen shows for casting older people as teenagers and the unrealistic portrayal, while her romantic conquest Paxton happens to be played by an actor who is 29 (while the actor playing Devi was 17 when filming). No steroid jokes or failing class jokes can change the decade+ age gap of supposed teens there.
Take another instance… at no point is the Islamophobia of Hindu communities addressed. Not only is it merely passed off as a joke and never called out, but the ostracised character in question (who had a love marriage with a Muslim) advices Kamala against it because it would ruin her life. How is that an acceptable takeaway?
Is Islamophobia rampant in Hindu communities? Yes, now more so than ever. With the state-sponsored Muslim violence at home (the Modi shoutout was Not It – if anything a comment about how hated Modi is by Tamils would’ve been funnier) and in America – and the growing hatred of “us vs them” amongst brown people, it would’ve been even more important to have a more positive takeaway than this blatant attack. But yes, ha ha, aunties are Islamophobic, end of story.
Another such contradiction is the therapy session with Devi’s mother. The scene is poignant in the way therapy helps her come to terms with her own grief and feelings, but the line “Therapy is for white people” jarred me. Not because it’s particularly untrue. Mental illness itself is considered a myth it’s so stigmatised, that therapy is a different ballgame. Many brown parents across the world do feel this way. But coming at the end of the show, when her daughter clearly attends therapy confused me. It was clearly written for another laugh. Did she grudgingly agree to let her daughter go to therapy? We’ll never know.
The Impossible Standard
I want to end this by saying that my standards for NHAI might seem high but there are reasons for it. Mine are high because it’s my community being represented, my community being talked about. But I don’t want my high standards to mar the view of others seeing it – particularly non-SA audiences who have remarkably lower standards for white produced show. It is sadly true that POC produced stories are held to an impossibly higher standard compared to white produced mediocrity and I don’t want this to turn into that.
This week has been good for minorities in the Netflix arena, with the release of two ownvoices stories: Never Have I Ever and The Half of It. Both need to be seen through multiple lenses. There is the lens of the ownvoices, and there is the lens of a learner and observer. I want NHAI to succeed because we need more brown stories told by brown people – and there are a lot of threads it has that can be woven well because it’s still in early stages. I want it to get renewed because I want it to give a chance to improve.
But my sole fear is that because the way it has been set up, more than getting laughs from brown folks about our own confusing experiences, it’s setting us up to be mocked and laughed at by others – or worse, being educated by others on our own culture.
A scene which I think perfectly explains this is when Devi finds out she might move to India and is complaining to Ben about Coachella. Ben takes a moment to then mock India as dusty and crowded.
This scene encompasses my exact fear of the show. That the manner in which Devi speaks of India to those non-SAs around her (and how the show has a non-SA narrate the Indian experience to non-SA viewers) gives them a free pass to say the same horrendous things we have a right to complain about. It’s made worse because Devi said something equally gross and anti-Semitic to him earlier in the show, and it is “balanced” out.
My fear is the cycle of eye for an eye that it might lead to. And while it is not the responsibility of POC to educate racist white people, I think it is the responsibility of POC to not throw each other under the bus to get a few ratings and laughs for white approval.
(trigger warnings for the show: death of a parent, microaggressive ableism, microaggressive homophobia, anti-semitism, small mention of animal cruelty, islamophobia)