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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 22, 2024

On Demand: 'Never Have I Ever' been the star of an American teen dramedy

ON-DEMAND-1

My housemate Nyssa’s most underused fun fact is that she auditioned for the role of Devi on Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever” (2020–), a YA-esque Netflix series about a first-generation South Indian American high schooler intent on improving her social status. The role, though, went to Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (You’re still a queen, Nyssa). 

As a first-gen South Indian gal myself, I was excited about the arrival of “Never Have I Ever.” I was honestly surprised by how much I anticipated the representation. However, after binging the first season over two sessions of Netflix Party with my closest Indian friends, I emerged after the season finale with complicated sentiments of disappointment and optimism. 

My criticism stemmed from elements of the storytelling itself. For one, it’s odd that John McEnroe, American tennis star, voices the narrator. Even if chosen for the comedic absurdity of a 62-year-old white guy reporting a high school girl’s life, the narration created an immediate disruption to Devi’s voice, especially since McEnroe inevitably mispronounces Indian words like Devi's name, which is traditionally pronounced with the soft “dh” sound. These details may seem subtle to non-Desi viewers, but this oversight is what motivates the Praharshitas, Meghanas and Medhas to use their white friends’ names at Starbucks. 

Besides the confusing narration choice, Devi is just plain annoying, and I’m not usually against unlikable main characters. Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) the lead on “Grown-ish” (2018–) is often chastised by her peers for being self-centered or privileged, but she also displays an arc, a gesture of growth that makes her relatable. Devi is constantly shallow, making her hard to root for. 

“Grown-ish” also successfully presents a majority-POC friend group whose conversations about dating, race and activism authentically reflect their diverse identities and college experiences. Meanwhile, Devi’s best friends seem boxed in: Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) loves robots and dresses like a Best Buy employee; Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) loves to act and has a flair for the dramatic. And I’m sorry, but object-of-sexual-desire Paxton Hall-Yoshida is played by 30-year-old Darren Barnet — Jake Gyllenhaal vibes, anyone?  

Also if Devi is from the Valley, home to a strong Indian community, where are her Indian besties? Who is she gossipping with during the Ganesha pujas

I understand that Kaling’s childhood inspired her series, and my being upset that elements of my own aren’t apparent pressures the series to represent the mosaic of Indian American experiences. I just think there’s an untapped potential within the complex relationships of tradition, assimilation and cultural perspectives that will spark compelling narratives from Indian characters, and I’m craving for those stories to burst forth. 

There’s plenty of crappy television focused on white American teens, such that I can criticize one without criticizing all. That privilege isn’t shared with novel shows like “Never Have I Ever.” I recognize that it’s just the start, and as one of few examples of a South Indian protagonist, it has to fulfill the expectations of an entire demographic. 

Representation remains an important mechanism for showcasing the possibilities of who we can be, and especially for deciding whose story is important enough for a primetime spot. So, I really am proud that Devi exists at all. 

And besides, until “Never Have I Ever,” never had I ever had an almost-celebrity housemate.

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