Never Have I Ever web series review: A boring game of cliches
What’s the point of all the ‘inclusivity’ if you’re going to sell the same old tropes again?
Have you ever had a relative visit after spending years in America? Armed with chocolates and perfumes, they constantly complain about the heat and the dust, punctuating most of their sentences with, “You know in America...” Yes, the weather hasn’t changed much, and neither has the dust or garbage on the road. But on most occasions, they just don’t realise how much has changed in the country. If this relative was a web-series, then they would be Never Have I Ever.
Creator: Mindy Kaling
Cast: Maithreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Ramona Young
Streaming on: Netflix
This Mindy Kaling show is eerily similar to one of Netflix’s earlier offerings, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Not only are both teen romance dramas, but they also have leads with Asian roots, both of whom struggle with the loss of a parent and have a parent who is a doctor.
There was a lot of talk about casting an Asian-American actor to play the lead in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Netflix seems to think that’s enough. Never Have I Ever has a Tamil-Canadian, Maithreyi Ramakrishnan, playing the protagonist. And honestly, it is refreshing to see Indian faces (even if they are anglicised). But the pleasure is shortlived, as the show rarely goes beyond representing them as caricatures.
Of course, Devi Vishwakumar (Maithreyi) is a ‘nerd’, plays a musical instrument, is a high-school topper with an overbearing mother (Poorna Jagannathan), who hardly has a word for her apart from all the reprimanding. Devi believes that doing household chores is being ‘forced to be a servant’. She finds Vinayaga Chathurti lame, and all she wants to do is to get admitted to Princeton and never look back. Oh, and she believes body hair is an ‘Indian thing’. She asks her therapists to buy thongs and is obsessed with sex. You would think that’s a fascinating detour, only it’s not hormones-induced but rather about 'social status'. So we are back to square one. (Stray thought: Never have I ever heard a therapist recommend a patient ‘talk to a coyote’.)
None of the other characters fare better. Nalini, Devi’s mom, is a dermatologist. But she believes that ‘blessed textbooks’ shouldn’t fall on the ground, says things like, “Indian parents want their children to marry their own mother,” but actively advocates the same behaviour. Nalini also believes that “Itchy saris is a rite of passage for an Indian woman.” (Never have I ever heard of cotton saris?) For someone who is so ardently steadfast about religious traditions that don’t even make sense, she flaunts her mangalsutra in almost every frame. And none of the ‘aunties’, who are defined as "people with no blood relation but who have opinions and nitpick all your flaws," even speak about it. Rather they decide to annoy Nalini about her hair colour. I don’t believe in any such practices. I would have loved it if Nalini had it on, just as a sign of protest, but there is no conversation or even a passing reference to it. (Never have I ever heard of consistency?)
And Kamala, Devi’s relative who has moved to America to study in CalTech, behaves as if she hasn’t heard the term arranged marriage before. You grew up in India, man, how can this be news to you? Oh, not to mention, she suggests a seven-hour long Bollywood movie where a princess falls in love with a sweeper. (Never have I ever heard a more accurate description of Aladdin?) Look, I understand stereotypes are unavoidable. Someone said cliches become cliches because they fit. But, what’s the point of all the ‘inclusivity’ if you’re going to sell the same old tropes again? Sadly, passing references to Priyanka Chopra doesn’t make the show more Indian, nor does inserting ‘Kanna’ whenever you feel like it. (Also, never have I ever heard thakkali pronounced as thakli.)
The show’s best moments come when it addresses some of these tropes. Like when Devi looks at Indian women shaking a leg to Bollywood numbers at the puja and comments that it would be ‘dorky’ to do this anywhere else. And Pragathi Guruprasad (in a blink-and-miss appearance), says that her sister, who is the lead dancer, is part of a crew that was also in an American parade. "So who’s the dork now?" she asks. And later, when Devi mentions that she couldn’t have meat had she been in India, her American friend Ben corrects her that only 20-30 per cent of Indians are vegetarians. Unfortunately, these moments are truly rare.
Even setting aside all the issues with stereotyping, I couldn’t care less about the show. Due credit to Maithreyi, who sells a quite unlikeable character convincingly. As do the actors who play her girlfriends (Ramona Young, Lee Rodriguez), who I cared for more than Devi herself. But this is a show that has John McEnroe and Andy Samberg narrate episodes where they don’t add much. For example, we first see an apple, then hear the narrator tell us it’s an apple, and twenty minutes later, remind us that we had seen an apple a few minutes ago. (Never have I ever seen a recap in the third episode of a show.) So much for a show with a ‘smart protagonist’, huh?