Never Have I Ever is Netflix’s brand new teen show, with the surprise twist of a young Indian girl being the lead! Like most viewers, I went in apprehensive yet hopeful. But the show, unfortunately, failed to do itself, and the brown girls it represents, justice.
From the kick-off of the show, it becomes clear the team behind the camera is pretty out of touch with the experiences of Gen Z teens. As a new-ish adult, I can say with confidence, most of us weren’t at high school parties doing lines of coke, and I doubt anyone talked about wanting “a stone-cold hottie who can rock me all night long.”
Within the first ten minutes, even more, abundant that the inspiration for a lot of the story is not really based in reality. In the real world, if you had been paralyzed from the waist down because of psychology trauma seeing a “stone-cold hottie” would not have made you walk away. No matter how fine he is, ladies, he’s not about to cure paraplegia.
In the following ten episodes, the show doesn’t become any more realistic or even likeable, to be honest.
The leading cause of this is Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Devi is a desi girl who has a tense, self-hating relationship with being Indian and is obsessed with sleeping with some random hot white dude. Rather than following the coming of age storyline where she makes mistakes and learns from them, she comes across as rude, incredibly selfish and, at times, downright hateful.
Yes, there are several other shows where the supporting characters are better than the lead (Christina Yang deserved better), but Never Have I Ever makes you actively dislike its lead character and root against her.
Her friends, Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) & Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez), and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), on the other hand, make for far more compelling characters. Following them on their paths of struggle and growth gives you far more insight into the facets of girlhood and womanhood that women of colour experience.
Fabiola’s exploration of her sexuality, her attempts to come out to her family and eventual separation from Devi show you how deeply personal the process of self-acceptance and coming out is. Coming out is nerve-wracking even if you know you’ll probably be accepted. That worry is an unfortunate part of queerness.
On the flip side of that, Eleanor is a free-spirited, wonderfully weird, theatre kid. Still, even she isn’t able to escape the complicated family dynamics. When faced with the truth about her absentee mother, we see a different side of the mother-daughter relationship.
It speaks to the unique and honestly saddening experience most of us go through when we are growing up where we become disillusioned to the idea of adulthood. Eventually, you reach a point where you become aware that your parents aren’t all-knowing beings who have the answers and solutions. That they’re just people trying to live their life, and that sometimes that life, unfortunately, doesn’t focus on their children.
This can be especially true for kids of colour. In my lived experience as a child of desi parents, I grew up thinking that my elders were right, no questions asked. As a teen, I questioned that, and it created a lot of friction between the ideals they wanted me to live by and the view I had for my life. I’d gone into Never Have I thinking that Devi would have a similar story, but I actually found Kamala to be more accurate to my experience.
Even though I wasn’t the perfect cousin that Kamala is supposed to portray, her double life and internal debate of “I know this is what I should do, but is it what I want to do?” is something I’m sure most of us can relate to. That deconstruction of that “perfect cousin” idea, was one of the best things to come out of the show, and it made her the most likeable member of Devi’s family, to be honest.
Yes, Devi’s mom, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), has some solid moments, but certain scenes leave a bad taste in the mouth. Particularly when we have the Ganesh Pooja scene. Where Nalini shuns a woman because she’s a divorcee who had married a Muslim man and gushes about knowing someone who knows Narendra Modi: India’s current Prime Minister and leader of the BJP (a Hindu nationalist, fascist party).
Something most non-Indian viewers might have missed in the Ganesh Pooja scene is how the show made the creative decision to use Bollywood music in place of religious hymns. Specifically, a song in Hindi, despite the fact the Vishwakumar family are Tamil, speak Tamil and would likely have no connection to Hindi.
It hammers in the fact that this show doesn’t come from a place of authenticity. Instead of a place that is purely creating content that homogenizes Indian cultures for the consumption of non-desi audiences.
While there are definitely some great moments. The show’s depiction and handling of ableism for one. All the scenes of Niecy Nash, as psychiatrist Dr. Jamie Ryan, who not only gives fantastic advice but demonstrates the importance of true self-care when she tells Devi that she should find a different doctor.
But unfortunately, you cannot really root for a character whose default is to manipulate friends and family. A character that tells someone who is Jewish that Hitler should’ve gotten them. Those aren’t goof ups, those are abusive and anti-Semitic attacks. It’s those things that disappointment, and make me say, skip this and save your time.