‘Never Have I Ever’ is the L.A. immigrant tale I never thought I’d see on TV: My own
“Never Have I Ever,” Netflix’s half-hour comedy about an Indian American teen coming of age in the San Fernando Valley, is the series I wish existed when I was in school, in the San Fernando Valley, embarrassed about my dad’s “weird” immigrant culture and hopelessly out of step with high school norms.
Cocreated by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher and starring the multitalented Poorna Jagannathan (“The Night of,” “Ramy,” “Big Little Lies”) as strict Indian mother Nalini and impressive newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as rebellious high school sophomore Devi, the new series is a masterwork of first-generation angst and alienation.
When we meet the pair, they’re grappling with the loss of husband and father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), who died eight months earlier. Grief, anger and denial abound as they struggle to navigate their relationship and lives without him, using tools from their respective upbringings to make it through. Old World versus New World. A mother’s expectations of her dutiful daughter versus the reality of an Americanized kid.
So much of the series feels biographical. My family is not Indian, but no one in my high school knew the difference between Arabs and South Asians back in the 1980s anyway. We may as well have been Dothraki.
For her new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” Mindy Kaling picked Canadian teen Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from an open call of 15,000 hopefuls.
My Iraqi dad would drop me at school while playing a cassette tape of Quran suras, part of a collection his brother sent from Baghdad. I’d slink down in the seat of his white Thunderbird as we pulled up outside the front gates, hoping no one noticed the weird sound was emanating from Mr. Ali’s car. So. Humiliating. As if his thick accent weren’t indictment enough among my judgmental 10th-grade peers.
We lived near Sherman Oaks, where Devi lives in the series. Many of my friends went to Taft, which is the campus she attends in the show, except it’s renamed Sherman Oaks High School. And my dad died when I wasn’t much older than Devi.
Her unbridled rage over his loss is a familiar beast, and rarely portrayed in a teen comedy — or anywhere else, for that matter — with such painful accuracy.
Girls on TV are seldom allowed to get as viscerally angry as Devi. They may say catty things, plot against their enemies, cry tears of frustration or drink, but violent outbursts are generally assigned to male characters unless we’re talking about a superhero (“Jessica Jones”) or if it’s in the service of justifiable revenge (“The Handmaid’s Tale”).
Devi throws books through windows, smashes things on the floor and verbally explodes. It’s not pretty, powerful or for a greater good. But it’s real, and it’s exceptional because there’s an Indian girl at the center of all this rage. Finally, the South Asian TV nerd (and she is a nerd) gets to be human, and the brown kid of an immigrant gets to be as ill-behaved, self-centered and petulant as her white peers.
Celebrating dysfunctional behavior may sound ridiculous, and maybe it is. But had I been able to watch this Netflix series in my teens or even my early 20s, it would have been cathartic. Girls like me were allowed to feel big! We didn’t need to tiptoe between societies and worlds, worried that one might offend the other. The quad, the mall and bad fashion choices also belonged to us, no matter if our parents prayed to Ganesh, toward Mecca, in a temple or at a church.
In her new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” co-creator Mindy Kaling introduces American viewers to the Hindu practice of Ganesh Puja.
Nalini is hard on her daughter. She’s an overbearing presence many children of immigrants will recognize when they watch “Never Have I Ever.” She wants better for her daughter, but never expected when she was married off in her early 20s that she’d be going it alone. When, in an outburst, Devi asks her mom why she’s being “such a bitch,” Nalini threatens to “smack” her daughter in front of a white neighbor. He’s clearly taken aback, so Nalini quickly explains: “Smacking is still an acceptable punishment in many minority cultures.”
Harsh as it is, she’s protecting her daughter the only way she knows how — by pushing her. In a scene when the two are preparing to pray during a religious ceremony, she instructs Devi: “Pray you get into Princeton. Don’t waste your prayers on stupid things like world peace.”
Devi’s just praying the hot boy at school, dreamy Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), will fall in love with her. The beauty of this comedy is it’s textbook teen drama — the popular skinny girls, the lunk-headed jocks, the raucous house parties at the rich kid’s house — but all the tropes are reimagined through the immigrant experience.
So many themes hit home in this delightfully warm and funny series, but particularly if your parents are from somewhere else and you grew up here. Never did I ever think I’d see our story on TV.
‘Never Have I Ever’
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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