Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ramona Young, Lee Rodriguez, Darren Barnet, Jaren Lewison, John McEnroe, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani
Creators: Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Rating: 4 stars (Out of 5)
The appeal of Never Have I Ever, a charming, peppy Netflix teen dramedy created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, stems primarily from its spry tempo, which alternates between the rollicking and the staccato, vividly capturing, in the process, the caprices of youth and the intricacies of a minority culture viewed from within and without.
The 10-episode series pivots around a 15-year-old first-generation Indian-American girl growing up in California's San Fernando Valley and dealing with teenage pangs aggravated by issues pertaining to, while going beyond, chasing "perfect grades and killer test scores", finding camaraderie and love, and dealing with a fretful single mom forever worried that her daughter might be hurtling down a ruinous path. No boyfriends until you are old enough to rent a car, the girl is told by her mother.
For all her vulnerabilities, there always are extenuating circumstances for Sherman Oaks High sophomore Devi Vishwakumar (played superbly by debutante Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). But she still cannot steer clear of trouble, which, of course, is hardly surprising when you consider that this brainy girl's behaviour often borders on the bratty and impulsive. Devi wants to be seen as "super cool and whip-smart".
A bit of delusion is inevitable when a friend describes her as a combination of Priyanka Chopra's "beauty" and Ruth Bader Ginsberg's "incisive intelligence". But she has more problems than she can clearly verbalise, so her therapist Dr Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) gives her "a grief journal" to record her innermost thoughts and spit out her frustrations.
Like tennis legend John McEnroe, who is the show's surprise narrator and whose on-court outbursts during his playing days (we get a few glimpses of his furious broadsides at umpires via fading television clips), Devi never shies away from giving full vent to her feelings. The omniscient commentary that the 61-year-old ESPN tennis analyst provides is as sardonic as it is sympathetic. He is always on Devi's side, but he does assume an admonitory tone when the situation demands.
Devi's deceased father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), who returns in flashbacks throughout the series especially when the protagonist is emotionally down in the dumps, was a fan of McEnroe's for the very reason that earned the sporting icon a bad boy image. "Look at him giving it back to the umpire," her dad says to Devi as they watch an early 1980s television recording. "He is a firecracker... just like you."
Yes, Devi is no goddess. In fact, nobody around her - at home or in school - is perfect. Never Have I Ever is populated with characters who, despite their flaws and lapses of judgment, never cross the line of acceptable conduct. The good-natured, high-spirited quality that showrunners Kaling and Fisher infuse the rom-com with percolates into its core and liven it up.
Even Devi's bete noire in school, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), who loses no opportunity to run her down, isn't all black. Nor do the Sherman Oaks High teachers exude hateful tyranny. Everybody on this campus is capable of goodness given half a chance, but that does not make Devi's tribulations any less onerous.
Never Have I Ever, which follows Devi as she negotiates love and hate, confusions and certitudes, love and loss, friendships and fulminations, sees the girl in full-blown confrontations with her demanding dermatologist mom Nalini (an outstanding Poorna Jagannathan) and her besties Eleanor (Ramona Young), a theatre enthusiast, and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), a robotics geek.
This isn't an average, cliche-laden immigrant experience show. It eschews the bromides of the genre, gives us rounded characters whose relationships ebb and tide in unpredictable ways that may or may not have anything to do with their cultural moorings, and narrates a convincing and moving coming of age story that is engaging all the way.
Devi grapples with teenage pangs worsened manifold by a tragedy - the untimely death of her father, who, she is sanguine, was the only parent who really cared about her. She craves the attention of the opposite sex. She wants to go the distance with the school hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) but isn't sure if she's ready for it.
Eleanor, whose mother is a source of consternation, and Fabiola, whose struggles centre on coming out to her friends and her family, are as frequently put off by Devi's short fuse as she is by acts of perceived betrayals that the duo commit. And at home, it isn't only her mother who is tough on her as she seeks personal freedom and social elevation.
Devi also has to contend with an over-cautious cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who stays with them and awaits an arranged marriage while she studies to acquire a degree from the California Institute of Technology. Kamala is too 'desi' in her ways for the liking of our rebellious heroine for whom an appearance at a Ganesh Puja gathering is obstacle race to evade unwanted "aunties" and college counsellor who, her mother has told her, could be her ticket to Princeton.
The doubts and resolutions swirling in Devi's mind sometimes trigger "full-on psycho" behaviour even as McEnroe looks for ways to commiserate with the mishap-prone girl who manages, at a party, to get mauled by a coyote she thinks is an avatar of her father.
To return to the beginning, to the very first episode to be precise, Devi's father drops dead in the middle of the school's spring concert. The shock paralyses her and she is unable to walk for three months. When she is back up on her feet, the impetuous, quick-tempered girl intends to make up for a "shit-fest" of a freshman year by acquiring a boyfriend and achieving star status on the campus.
She enlists El and Fab's support, but the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. She tots up a string of missteps. Devi resorts to, and/or is affected by, little white lies or unuttered truths. But in this story infused with warmth and wit, no misdemeanour is beyond redemption. Her desperation to hook up with Paxton stems from her desire to attain popularity. But she blows hot and cold.
Never Have I Ever is a minor classic, wise and wacky in one sweep. Binge: it will zip by like a breeze.