When I tuned into the new Netflix show Never Have I Ever, I was excited to finally watch a series with an Indian–American protagonist. I expected to see my complicated feelings about being Indian–American explored on screen.
There are so few mainstream shows or films that feature even a background Indian character. Even with the wave of diverse television sitcoms like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, there was no equivalent South Asian representation. Characters with Indian ethnicity are often played by other actors of color—Vice Principal Gupta in The Princess Diaries was played by Sandra Oh; Vincent Kapoor in The Martian was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. We are a community starved of recognition in the entertainment industry.
The series follows protagonist Devi Vishwakumar as she starts her sophomore year of high school. Devi desperately throws herself into the goal of becoming popular and having sex with popular athlete Paxton Hall-Yoshida in order to distract herself from the trauma of her father’s sudden death the year before.
I found the show charming, but its cringy main storyline bored me. Following a high schooler trying to get popular and lose her virginity is a clichéd plotline. It even follows the common trope of the teenage protagonist being cruel to the real friends they had all along. Based on the premise alone, I would have never bothered watching it if the main character hadn’t been Indian–American, which made it seem like her Indian–ness was just a talking point for the show.
The best parts of Never Have I Ever are the secondary storylines and B–plots. Devi’s flashbacks and grief over her father were gut–wrenching and utterly devastating. Her relationship with her mother was turbulent and raw. Other intriguing storylines include her cousin Kamala dealing with an arranged marriage and her friend Fabiola struggling with her sexuality. When these stories were on screen, I was enthralled. But every time Devi shied away from mourning her dad in order to, once again, think about Paxton, it was all the more frustrating. Maybe it’s just indicative of a quintessentially teenage story. We watch teenagers be self–centered and angry in their pursuit of popularity or sex all the time. That doesn't make it any less frustrating or Devi any less unlikable.
That’s not to take away from the actors’ hard work. Newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishan, who plays Devi, and Poorna Jagannathan and Sendhil Ramamurthy, who play Devi’s parents Nalini and Mohan Vishwakumar respectively, are the standout performances. Every flashback with Mohan made me cry, and Devi’s final reconciliation with her mother made me so emotional I had to go find my own mom. These interactions are when the show is at its most authentic, exploring how parents can disappoint you and be cruel while still celebrating how beautiful their love can be.
I loved the representation of Hinduism on–screen, which I’ve almost never seen. The show deserves credit for its diverse casting, with most of the characters being POC despite the importance of their role. However, it still fell into some common traps—the main Indian protagonist is an academic overachiever obsessed with her grades and her mother is comically worried about her college prospects. A character with Down Syndrome, though portrayed as independent and ambitious, is ultimately a plot device used to humanize the love interest and generate conflict. The show can’t help but delve into the territory of “wild teen repressed by strict Asian culture,” which is not only stereotypical, but was covered extensively and hilariously on the Asian corner of YouTube years ago.
Parts of the show made me squeal with delight because they were so authentic to the Indian–American teenage girl experience—your parents forcing you to bring gifts when you visit someone, bemoaning swathes of arm hair, being compared to your more successful cousins. And yet other parts seemed to be packaged to present Indian–American life to a greater, whiter audience. The concept of Indian “aunties” is explained in a voiceover by a white man (tennis legend John McEnroe provided most of the narration on the show). In episode 5, Islamophobia within the Indian community is touched upon briefly, but not explained. I don’t want one of the negative aspects of my culture put out for entertainment without the proper context or explanation of the Hindu–Muslim conflict.
In that very episode, still, the show finally touches on the struggle between being loyal to your Indian roots yet feeling Westernized due to your upbringing. Devi repeatedly rejects Indian culture, which felt insensitive as the episode didn’t delve into her insecurities with any depth or nuance.
The series similarly waffles on the sensitive topic of arranged marriage. It doesn’t demonize a cultural practice that is historically integral to the South Asian community, as it would undoubtedly be problematic to present it as some regressive practice judged by an elevated western society. However, it also refuses to fully renounce the practice even though it comes hand–in–hand with, as the show points out quite obviously, institutionalized misogyny and intense social pressure. It’s a complicated issue and perhaps not one that can be adequately addressed in a teen sitcom, but it was still dissatisfying to see the show tiptoe around the topic.
Perhaps I came in with expectations that were too great a burden for a lighthearted show. My own cultural identity is conflicted and hard–won, and any television show exploring it would have ultimately felt reductive. The bigger problem is this is the only show that has ever bothered trying, and that this representation has been such a long time coming. I think Never Have I Ever is acclaimed for its diversity mostly because it’s the only series of its kind, and that’s a serious issue the industry needs to address.
The series has been renewed for its second season, and though it isn’t one of my favorites, I’m glad, because it's needed. While I hope they cut the cringy teenage romance and try harder to represent the true Indian–American struggle, what I can say about Never Have I Ever is that it has the potential to be amazing.