In the opening scene of Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling's new coming-of-age comedy on Netflix, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) prays for what every 15-year-old Indian-American teenager raised in the suburbs yearns for. All she wants for her sophomore year are forearms that don't require liberal reapplication of Nair and a fine, if simple, boyfriend who can "rock her all night long." And as she reminds the careful array of Hindu gods in her home, they owe her after the sudden death of her father last year.
It's not a spoiler to say that Devi's plan to shed her identity -- as the girl so paralyzed with grief that her legs briefly stopped working -- does not go according to plan. At first, Devi thinks it's because her best friends left her hanging on their carefully concocted plan to lose their virginities. And then, it's because her high school nemesis spreads a rumor about her that outs her as a liar. As if those indignities aren't enough, Devi's family is there every step of the way to remind her how hard she's failing at being a good Indian girl. Not to mention, her therapist (Niecy! Nash!) who won't stop pointing out all the emotional baggage she's already moved on from. If this all sounds like well-trod ground for teen comedy, it is. But Never Have I Ever can't be called derivative; the series is Mindy Kaling's best and most original work.
While the series has predictable jumping off points for conflict, Kaling and her co-showrunner Lang Fisher have written a show full of characters who love to take left turns. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Devi's inner life is narrated by professional tennis' most notable bad boy, John McEnroe. The unusual choice begins to make sense as Devi applies her overachiever energy not just toward dominating academics (as expected), but also toward scheduling Google Calendar events for sex, stealing enough alcohol to get the entire model UN drunk, and running away from home. The stereotype that Devi could be on another show -- another smart, sarcastic teen struggling to understand her identity -- falls away to reveal a passionate young woman who commits to her bad decisions with just as much fervor as she commits to good ones. As lost as she is, Devi can only really seem to be herself.
Each character unfolds in a similarly unexpected way, and because it's anchored by a pitch-perfect cast, the series builds into an incredibly empathetic look at people who sometimes are the worst while trying to do their best. While newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan dominates the show with the same zeal as Devi, Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani, who play Devi's mom and older cousin respectively, are also notable standouts in the cast. The three Vishwakumar women split the burden of representation in a way that showcases Kaling's evolving connection to community; while being Indian colors in every part of their lives, none of the Vishwakumar women can be solely defined by their Indian-ness. In that sense, Never Have I Ever is leagues beyond the best efforts of both The Mindy Projectand Four Weddings and a Funeral.
The true strength of the series lies the fact that it never lets any of its characters off the hook. Underneath a slew of extremely good zingers and an effortlessly playful tone, every bad decision slowly crawls back and takes root. In fact, it's only when Devi finds herself isolated after a series of teen Fleabag-esque moves that her brash confidence subsides enough to ask for help. There are no neat bows to tie up lessons learned however, just characters inching towards being kinder to each other and themselves.
Never Have I Ever isn't a perfect show, and doesn't need to be. Kaling and Fisher have created a shockingly intimate first-gen portrait that's as comforting as your mother's chai and as salty as the gossip served with it. Sweet, sexy, and whip smart, Never Have I Ever is poised to become Netflix's next big hit.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Never Have I Ever is now available to stream on Netflix.