High-key nerds, low-key virgins: Thoughts on Never Have I Ever

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If you were judge Never Have I Ever on its appealing trailer alone, you might be tempted to think it’s yet another in a long line of quirky coming-of-age Netflix tales with preternaturally articulate teens, great big perplexing growing up life issues and a beguiling mix of quirky humour and big “E” emotional moments.

It is, of course, all those things, but in the hands of Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project) and Lang Fisher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project), it is refreshingly, affectingly original, a story that resonates with as much truth about the human experience as it does the travails of teenage life.

Much of that has to do with the premise which sees 15-year-old harp-playing Tamel Indian American highschooler Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) trying her best to get back to some semblance of normality in the chaotic aftermath of her dad Mohan’s (Sendhil Ramamurthy) untimely death from a heart attack.

It is clear from a number of pivotal moments in the first episode alone that Devi is not handling his loss at all well but so obsessed is she with making the new school year far better than emotionally cataclysmic last one – her father died at a school concert after which she temporarily lost the use of her legs, two things from which it is hard to recover – that she barrels ahead as if her heart is coated in teflon and all the trauma of her dad’s death is just sliding right off with no ill-effect.

Spoiler alert: it is not.

Try as she might to convince herself and the Hindu gods to whom she prays that she is fine, just fine, thank you very much, with her new school wishlist including a boyfriend, hairless arms and invitations to drug and sex-fuelled parties (she won’t partake in those two elements but wants to at least be in a position where she can refuse them), she is hurting, really hurting, a broken state of being that has a huge effect on everything from her relationship with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) to her friendships with besties Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young).

While Never Have I Ever ticks some outstandingly well told narrative boxes about romance, friendship, acceptance and the perils of high school life (and some brilliantly good music in its soundtrack), every last part of its highly-engaging storyline is steeped in the way grief affects every last facet of our lives and how, try as we might, that pretending it is not there and life is back to normal, is nowhere near as simple as wishing it away.

You can’t blame Devi for trying – grief is exhausting and awful and debilitating in the extreme and it is tempting to think a crash-or-crash-through approach, a focus on big, bright and positive things, the things it feels like its continually leeching from your life, might do the trick in ending its messy reign of misery.

But grief is not so easily dispatched and as we watch Devi reach for the brass rings of boys, parties and enhanced social status, none of which she quite manages to pull off without mishaps and emotional setbacks aplenty, it becomes obvious that nothing is every going to plan, or have a hope of doing so, until she deals with her grief.

To be fair, that’s not an appealing prospect and as Davi and her mother draw closer to Mohan’s birthday, the first one without him, Devi pours every last part of her, heart and soul, into making all her wishes and prayers come true.

She comes close more than she isn’t, snagging, in the most hilariously awkward of ways, the attention of the most popular and hunky guy at school, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), finding she might have more in common than she expected with her academic frenemy Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) and finally getting to the parties she has so long coveted.

But hey this is real life, with or without grief, a messily unpredictable sequence of events that seems to take delicious existential delight in thwarting the best laid plans of mice, men and San Fernando Valley teens.

Many of these setbacks are played for laughs in part – they are after all, mortifyingly funny – but they are also allowed to breathe with the ordinary pain of not getting what you wanted and how the fallout can affect previously rock solid friendships, but also the way in which grief, even if Devi won’t acknowledge it to her fabulously cool but empathetic therapist Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) has an amplifying effect on each and every moment.

For all its observantly-rich witty banter and eye for gleefully absurd storytelling, all of which it prosecutes so well, helped along by uniformly great performances all around, that you can’t help but fall in love with Devi’s world and its people including her adorably conflicted cousin Karmala (Richa Moorjani), Never Have I Ever never forgets what drives it.

Grief is everywhere but rather than weigh things down, it adds luster and substance to the show which quickly becomes more than whether Devi is there for Eleanor and Fabioloa at great crisis moments in her life (not so much) or who it is she wants to win her heart (she thinks she knows but, like all of us, she knows nothing), though they’re fun to watch, but how Devi is finally going to handle the looming and inevitable confrontation with the unavoidable truth of her dad’s death.

Kaling and Fisher weave the omnipresence of grief into the story in such an adroit and affecting way that even as you’re laughing as John McEnroe’s knowingly postmodern and arch narration (yes, the man himself does the honours and it’s as glorious as you might envisage), you can see in every mucked-up moment and failed grand gesture how much Devi is trying and failing to beat her repressed but undeniable emotional nemesis.

We all know there’s a reckoning coming up and that no amount of maneuvering by Devi is going to forestall it forever, but it’s the nuanced and moving way that Kaling and Fisher accomplish this that makes it such a beautiful and affecting show to watch.

Never Have I Ever is a masterclass in combining humour and gravity in such a way that each is intimately connected to the other; that’s how it is in real life where happiness is just one flip of the existential coin from becoming suffocating sadness, but to see it portrayed so beautifully in a show is a rare and powerfully moving treat, allowing you to inhabit the place of any grief stricken person where grief and a desire to keep on living well sit uneasily as the most inimical of neighbours.

Devi begins to emerge from the despondency of enervating and life-sabotaging grief but not before coming to grips with the truth of her broken heart and how denying of its fractured potency is negatively affecting so much things in her young life, from her relationship with her mum to her friendships with her besties and the chance to acquire that longed-for boyfriend.

Never Have I Ever is funny and quirky and silly and sweet, a joy to behold with fine performances, witty, clever writing and a knowing sensibility about how life really works, but it is also rich in its understanding and articulation of grief and how, much as we might want everything to fall back into some kind of idealised normal without fear, favour or pain, the reality is we have no choice but to face the stark truth of grief, only then able to emerge into something that resembles what we hope and pray life has the ability to become.

Posted In TV

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