Never Have I Ever
Switching the point of view for an episode is a common storytelling device in television and can help to deepen the narrative world of a show. Never Have I Ever swaps Devi’s point of view for Ben’s in this episode, which also means a narration swap, with Andy Samberg replacing John McEnroe. The placement of the episode makes sense, since it follows the episode that shows Devi at her worst. And the premise indeed expands Never Have I Ever’s viewpoint, suggesting that there’s more to Ben than meets the eye. I’m a bit torn on the actual usefulness of the episode, though. Complicating characters beyond tropes and stereotypes lends a lot to a story, but is the perspective of a straight, white rich boy really needed on Never Have I Ever? What does it really add to the story?
Well, the one clear implication of this episode is that we’re gearing up for a Devi-Ben romance. Rivals turned lovers is a common enough rom-com trope and one that Mindy Kaling seems to gravitate toward. I’m along for the ride in that department, but I’m not sure it’s the most effective choice to start developing that dynamic from Ben’s perspective.
Thematically, Ben’s story does connect with the bigger picture of the show. Just as Eleanor’s arc with her mother provided an expanded look at how parental loss affects kids, Ben’s family situation does the same. We watch him go through his day: He plays basketball badly, plays video games, posts about Rick and Morty on Reddit under the unfortunate handle AreolaGrande007. He has parents, and we briefly meet his mother, played by Angela Kinsey. But her presence is fleeting, and his dad’s presence is limited merely to texts. It’s easy to see it coming when his dad bails on the basketball game he was supposed to take Ben and Shira to, but it’s still a bummer.
Ben’s long-brewing grief spills over when he sees Nalini for a dermatologist appointment and is bowled over by her offhand comment about dinners with Devi. He can’t remember the last time he had dinner with family, or anyone really. Even his girlfriend, Shira, who has some brief but funny scenes here, only likes him for his money, and Ben knows that yet continues to date her. His life is full of faked intimacy, and his loneliness is palpable. It’s no wonder he has thrown himself with such intensity into this longtime rivalry with Devi — it’s one of the realest relationships he has. Still, Never Have I Ever is a little too neat with its attempts to make Ben more sympathetic. Oh, the rich boy is deeply lonely? You don’t say! Without much nuance beyond that, the story feels a little tired.
Ben’s dynamic with the family’s housekeeper drives home some of the missteps of this episode; she’s flattened by the writing and feels more like a prop in Ben’s life. Part of the charm of Never Have I Ever has been its development of side and one-off characters, but she doesn’t get that treatment at all. Ben’s point of view is a little too suffocating. Then there’s the interlude between Ben and one of his internet pals from Reddit, who turns out to be a creepy older dude, which is a complete misfire. Ben’s loneliness is better established in his scene with Nalini, so we don’t really need a catfishing gag to develop that and then the reveal that he’s a creep is just a cheap joke that isn’t even that funny.
The most effective scenes reframe ones we’ve already seen. Ben watches Devi on the bus after the model U.N. trip, and we see her reaction to the siren from afar this time. Whereas the close-up and cut to flashbacks in the last episode during this moment make it clear that she’s reliving trauma, from Ben’s perspective it doesn’t look like much at all. Instead, he’s in his own head, wondering if he imagined them bonding during the party and wondering what it was he might have said to make her turn on him.
Whenever a television show switches point of view, it’s a striking reminder that we can never fully know the interior lives of another person. On Never Have I Ever, we get all of Devi’s thoughts because they’re literally spelled out to us by John McEnroe. But seeing her the way Ben sees her, we don’t get any of that interiority. That conceit in and of itself reiterates loneliness, and creating that sense of isolation is this episode’s greatest achievement.