tv review

Never Have I Ever Made Me Happier Than I’ve Been in Weeks

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, left, stars in Never Have I Ever as Devi, a delightful protagonist who has endearing, thoughtful friends with stories of their own, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), center, and Eleanor (Ramona Young), right. Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Without even realizing it, I’ve been missing teen TV rom-coms. I had no idea I wanted one so badly, that I was aching for some pitch-perfect teen angst injected into the comforting, unshakable framework of a stretched-out love triangle. And then I started Never Have I Ever, a new Netflix series created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher and starring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi, a sophomore who had a tragic first year of high school and who’s doing her best to shake it off and move forward. I watched every episode as quickly as I possibly could, and when it ended I was furious I hadn’t forced myself to slow down. (Consider this fair warning — the first season premieres in full on Netflix today.)

There are so many pleasures in this series, none of which would work if Devi weren’t such a delightful protagonist, an ideal mixture of understandably selfish, self-blind, legitimately funny, fundamentally good, and deeply caring. Devi wants a boyfriend. She wants her arm hair to thin out; she knows it’s an Indian thing but it’s just too much. She wants to get invited to a party where there’s a lot of drugs and alcohol — not so she can get wasted, but because she wants the opportunity to coolly decline. She wants to go to Princeton. She has endearing, thoughtful friends (Ramona Young as Eleanor and Lee Rodriguez as Fabiola) who are ridiculous and sweet and get plenty of time to establish themselves as fully realized characters; eventually their needs become important plot points that help balance out all the attention on Devi. Her mother, played by a typically fantastic Poorna Jagannathan, is loving and supportive but doesn’t always click well with her daughter, often misunderstanding or misreading her, and setting expectations that Devi chafes against.

Devi’s Indianness is a vital part of the show, both in the way it shapes Devi’s story and in the way Never Have I Ever plays into the rom-com genre. Being Indian affects almost every aspect of Devi’s life: It feeds into her mother’s expectations, it’s why her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) lives in their house, it means Devi has to attend long, boring Indian holiday celebrations she’d rather skip, and it changes the way Devi and her mother deal with the grief they’re both trying to grapple with. It makes Never Have I Ever purposely, happily different from the previous white-kids-in-a-white-neighborhood teen rom-com default. It is a defining, all-pervasive facet of what this show is.

But Never Have I Ever also treats the fact that Devi comes from an Indian-American family with a giant, somewhat bored, perfectly teenage eye roll. Her heritage makes her different from her friends, yes, but ugh, fine, it’s whatever, can we just move on? Of course she can’t; her mother’s needling her to wear a sari rather than a kurta and jeans to Ganesh Puja, and rubbing coconut oil into Kamala’s hair so Kamala’s prospective husband will think she smells like his mother. It shapes Devi’s life in big ways and small, but Never Have I Ever wields that knowledge deftly. Her mixture of rebellion, resentment, and pride in her family background is complex and constantly shifting. Her Indianness is something she owns happily in one moment and then ditches as quickly as possible in others. She’s a classic overachieving high schooler, and what might seem like her internal conflict about being Indian only underlines how perfectly consistent Devi is in being a teenaged girl.

In so many ways, Never Have I Ever reminds me of Jane the Virgin, one of the greatest shows on television in the last decade. Like Jane, this show foregrounds the heroine’s immigrant culture, and there are obvious parallels between the young men who become Never Have I Ever’s two love interests and the long-simmering tension between Team Rafael and Team Michael. But more broadly, the two shows share a common aesthetic, a fizzy combination of a slightly heightened fictional world that’s grounded in insistently realistic emotions. Never Have I Ever is less mannered than Jane, less focused on playfully self-aware storytelling. Its heightened world is comparatively low key: Where Jane often indulged in total fairy-tale wish fulfillment, Never Have I Ever sticks to teens with unusually good skin and some patently unlikely story lines. The overall impression is the same — real emotions, set inside a world that’s just a little brighter.

The other major similarity to Jane the Virgin is in Never Have I Ever’s use of a narrator. But where Jane’s unnamed Latin Lover voice is a fictional construct, Never Have I Ever makes an unexpected choice for the narrator of its show about the life of an Indian-American high-school girl: tennis great John McEnroe. It could’ve easily been a disaster. McEnroe’s narration could’ve sounded condescending or goofy, or it might have trivialized Devi’s obstacles by playing off the dissonance between a nice sophomore girl and a 61-year-old sports celebrity. But, as with so many things about Never Have I Ever, McEnroe’s narration (funny, self-deprecating, unapologetically weird) was just one more thing I loved.

There is one unfortunate bump early in the show. Never Have I Ever begins at a moment when Devi’s trying to turn things around for herself; her father died suddenly last year, and in her subsequent trauma, Devi’s legs abruptly stopped working. Her problem has resolved by the time the first episode begins, but especially on top of her father’s death, it’s such an intense, unusual trauma to give Devi so early in the series. The show isn’t quite sure how to handle it. Her friends say awkward things, and her mother worries. But because this part of her trauma resolves so quickly, it’s almost treated as a shrug. It’s one of the rare moments that Never Have I Ever works well on paper but fails in the execution. Devi’s legs are plainly meant to be a dramatic symptom of her larger refusal to grieve for her dad, which plays out throughout the first season and becomes a crucial, poignant stumbling block in the final episodes. Thematically, it makes sense. In practice, it’s totally unnecessary, and becomes a strange distraction.

It’s the one real misstep in an otherwise fantastic series, and after the first episode it hardly matters. (Which is exactly my point: If you have a plot where the protagonist suddenly loses the use of her legs and it barely matters, should the plot be in there at all?) In every other way, though, Never Have I Ever was an unexpected and fully welcome treat, a TV show I didn’t realize I badly needed until I’d finished it and instantly wished for more.

Never Have I Ever Made Me Happier Than I’ve Been in Weeks