“Never Have I Ever,” a new Netflix original by Mindy Kaling, makes discordant choices when telling a fun story.
The show follows high school sophomore Demi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who recently overcame a trauma-induced psychosomatic injury stemming from the very public death of her father. Around school, she’s known as the girl who lost the use of her legs after her father died during a school concert. As a sophomore, Devi wants to rehab her public image, to be cool and normal, experiencing what high school has to offer. That includes having a boyfriend and going to a “no-parents” drinking party.
“Never Have I Ever” showcases teenage shortsightedness and surveys the embarrassing litany of situations one fifteen year old dork can find herself in. However, the show has a hard time staying tonally consistent, balancing coming-of-age heart with irreverent meta humor.
In the pilot, Devi steamrolls through the episode, relentlessly switching locations and outfits to hit narrative notes and fulfil punchlines without any consideration for consistency. Internally, the show veers between trying to be true to the teenage experience and trying to incorporate unnecessary superficial quips. Scenes are often disturbed by Kaling’s signature irreverence and pop-culture veneration. Hearing Devi liberally refer to other people as “uggos” is out of place and off-putting, more a relic of the titular character Mindy Lahiri from Kaling’s previous show “The Mindy Project.”
As the show’s pilot progresses, you understand that Devi is a fantasy composite of five different characters: the raging academic, rom-com lover, injured dramatic, drug loving adult and “relatable” awkward nerd. Most of these personalities are quickly adopted and discarded for laughs. In the pilot episode, the show’s writers insert an unnecessary joke that subtracts from Devi’s established character development. In her therapist’s office, Devi rapidfire lists drugs, hoping that her therapist would prescribe her some medication. Devi’s eagerness to medicate shatters an implicit understanding of Devi as a sheltered dork. Where did Devi learn about those drugs? Does Devi want Paxil to treat anxiety or for recreational use? It does not matter. The show later forgets the punchline of Devi’s feverish desire to medicate.
Moreover, after being called ugly and demonstrating genuine insecurity with her body, Devi chooses to cut her skirt shorter. In school the next day, the camera gives a slow pan of Devi’s high heels and long legs. Devi is not self conscious, her bodily insecurity has been resolved. But the lackluster resolution of her image issues undermines the substance of her character and emotional journey. Her choices are discordant and misaligned with her previous emotions one scene previous. The writers of “Never Have I Ever” stretch Devi far beyond the justified limits of her facticity to make ill timed jokes and progress the plot. By the end of the first episode, Devi is unrecognizable as an internally consistent character. The desire for quips and jokes undermines the show’s efforts to tell a heartfelt story.
However, despite all of “Never Have I Ever”’s failings, the show is fun, making you squeal, cowering gleefully away from the on-screen antics. Later in the season, Devi joins her rival Ben (Jaren Lewison, “Tag”) on the Model U.N team. They get up to dorky hijinks and the banter between Ben and Devi is top notch: fast-paced and clever. Rarely do you see such nerds on the silver screen without their interests being mocked or used as a punchline. Kudos to Kaling and “Never Have I Ever” for making an authentic Model U.N. themed episode.
While undermined by off-putting characterizations, “Never Have I Ever” has a fantastic grasp on high school as an inane and absurd period. The show eventually resolves its tonal indecision, abandoning unnecessary punchlines and embracing itself as coming of age narrative. Kaling’s idiosyncrasies subside after the first episode, taking a backseat to the stabilization of Devi’s character and her later character development.