Just when we all thought we’d reached the point of quarantine where we’ve consumed every bit of content across the internet, Netflix comes in with the save. After much hype, the streamer released Never Have I Ever on Monday (April 27), and the young adult series, created by Mindy Kaling and loosely inspired by her upbringing, is sure to lift viewers up from their socially distanced blues.
With episodes clocking in under a half hour each, the comedy has a familiar pace for anyone who’s seen Kaling’s work on The Mindy Project. Both shows are propelled forward by quippy, intelligent female protagonists who are ready for way more than the world is giving them. So, both actively go after what they want. For Mindy, that is to essentially live a real-life romantic comedy. In high schooler Devi’s case (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), that’s to push herself and her two best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), into the popular circle.
It’s a tale we probably think we’ve heard before, but this one’s a little bit different. “This story, it hasn’t been done before. Let’s just be blunt about that,” Ramakrishnan tells MTV News. “It hasn’t been done before with a South Asian female lead, emphasis on lead. She’s not a sidekick to anybody. She’s not some nerd that’s just in the background that has one funny line per episode. She talks a hell of a lot and that’s pretty dope.”
Devi’s South Asian culture comes into play throughout the 10-episode series, as she struggles to balance her family’s Indian culture (blessing textbooks to ensure she does well in school) with her American identity (throwing textbooks out the window in a fit of frustrated rage). For Ramakrishnan, it was refreshing to portray the experience of existing in between Eastern and Western ways of life; both too Indian, and yet not Indian enough. “She’s just asking herself, ‘What about me is good enough then? What am I to the world? Where do I fit in?’”
Young also found a surprising playfulness in diving into Eleanor, who was unlike any character she’s gotten to portray on screen. “She was an Asian American that is outgoing and dramatic and funny and just so dynamic,” she says. That added character development felt closer to her lived experience, having, much like Eleanor, grown up in a divorced family and with a love of acting from a young age.
But the real strength of the show is that growing up transcends culture, with storylines that fit perfectly into the classic stylings of teendom that we’ve all lived through. Plotting to lose your virginity to the hot, cool jock, sneaking out for a house party, competing with your academic nemesis for the top grades, making TikToks with friends — those are the things that make high school, high school.
In fact, Rodriguez related more to Devi and Eleanor than she did her own robot-loving character (“This girl’s a model,” Ramakrishnan says of her costar, who primarily dons oversized polo shirts on screen), while Young fully lived through all of Devi’s angst. “Every time she would break something or throw something out a window, I was like, ‘Yeah, I really felt that,’” Young says.
Similar to the way Devi brings a traditionally marginalized identity into the spotlight, Fabiola and Eleanor also serve as more than just sideline players. “Sure, they are a part of Devi’s story, but they have such individual stories themselves,” Ramakrishnan says. After completing the first step of Devi’s popularity plan — get a boyfriend — Fabiola realizes that a boyfriend might not be exactly the kind of relationship she wants. Meanwhile, Eleanor is dealing with the realization that her mom, who had previously left home to be an actress, is no farther than a local restaurant.
All three teens contribute crucial elements to the customary coming-of-age story, at the same time adding new elements that we haven’t seen much of before. They’re important tales to tell, done in a way that doesn’t forget that life, as dramatic as it can get, is still overwhelmingly joyful. “From the moment I read the scenes, even in the audition room, I was like, ‘Man, this is real good writing,’” Young says. “It’s funny, it’s fresh. I’m not just saying words, I’m experiencing different things through the writing.”
Translated to the screen, Never Have I Ever offers a much-needed break from our current reality, allowing viewers to relive familiar high school experiences through an updated lens, and serving as a reminder that, even now, laughter just makes things better.
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