Saturday, May 30, 2020

Never Have I Ever: Review

A couple of years ago, Indian- and Pakistani-origin performers on US television were having a collective moment. Mindy Kaling had wrapped up The Mindy Project and was rubbing shoulders with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8. Aziz Ansari had done two critically acclaimed seasons of Master of None. Hasan Minhaj had his comedy-news series. Kumail Nanjiani was on Silicon Valley and writing and starring in The Big Sick. That moment may not have passed, but representation, in and of itself, is no longer the distant summit it used to be. We might now be at a stage where we can ask these creators and showrunners whether, having transcended diaspora stereotypes themselves, they are continuing to dismantle them.

Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever (streaming on Netflix) proceeds steadily till episode 4, when it breaks down and indulges every NRI stereotype possible. There’s an Indiana Jones reference. There’s a video with an elephant and the Taj Mahal. "Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna" plays at a Ganesh Puja (the song also played in Extraction; Netflix might want to update its Hindi film playlist). There’s a “Bollywood dance". There’s a woman who’s ostracised because she fought with her Hindu family in Chennai to marry a Muslim in the US. There’s a priest called Pandit Raj – an unlikely name, worse when you consider that Raj, along with Kumar, is the go-to name for Indian characters in American shows.

There’s also a girl whose dream it is to go to Princeton and whose mother tells her to corner a college counsellor who might help her get into an Ivy League school. This is Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an outgoing nobody who starts school year determined to change everyone’s image of her as the harp player whose father died during a recital. The first episode has a scene familiar from every teen comedy ever made, the one where the nerds – Devi and her friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) – decide this is the year they’ll find eligible partners and become cool.

Ramakrishnan was chosen out of 15,000 aspirants for the role of Devi. She’s an easy comic presence from the first scene, where she asks a panoply of Indian gods “What’s popping?" and to bless her (and her botany textbook). She gives Devi a Ferris Bueller-like hustle, cooking up crazy plans on the fly. Almost all of them backfire, like when she asks her crush, Paxton (Darren Barnet), who barely knows she exists, if he’d like to have sex with her – and he agrees, but she can’t get to first base without bailing. Poorna Jagannathan – rather wasted in big-ticket series like The Night Of and Big Little Lies – is also excellent as Nalini, Devi’s mother, though it's weird to hear her do an "Indian accent".

The writing, by Kaling, Fisher and several others, is best when dealing in comic barbs (“discount Luke Wilson"), and especially weak whenever Devi’s cousin from India, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), is speaking (“I have a choice, between my family and a life of shame, that will disgrace me and my descendants for generations"). The smartest ruse, though, is having tennis player John McEnroe narrate the show. It’s a creative leap, with a thin explanation behind it, but the weirdness of the juxtaposition works.

There’s a conundrum at the heart of the show, which is much better when it avoids “Indian" situations and focuses on Devi’s life as an average school-going 15-year-old, obsessed with boys and her image. But remove her Indian identity and there’s little that’s unique about the show. Everything seems familiar, from the overeager teacher to Devi’s carefully diverse posse (Indian American topper, biracial science whiz, Asian American drama geek – and an added queer element). Paxton is every beautiful, unattainable idiot in every teen drama. Ben (Jaren Lewison), Devi’s class rival and, unless the show swerves unexpectedly, the boy she’ll develop feelings for once she’s over Paxton, is a lonely rich kid whose parents don’t spend any time with him. It’s like an assemble-it-yourself teen sitcom.

Episode 8 is the one outright winner, its opening minutes a series of great gags: Devi turning a request to model clothes into an outré photoshoot, Eleanor reeling off two hilariously bad impressions, and the best McEnroe joke of the season, his Hallmark homily cut off at just the right moment. But then the next episode comes around, with enough accents to populate a Gurinder Chadha film. It ends with a confrontation beautifully acted by Jagannathan and Ramakrishnan. Yet this too feels calculated, a Very Special Episode markedly different in tone from what comes before and after.

In a revealing scene, Kamala watches Riverdale and marvels at the outrageousness of American teen dramas. The truth is, shows like Riverdale and Euphoria and Sex Education have pushed the teenage TV show into adventurous new realms. Never Have I Ever, by comparison, feels safe – too amiable to cast aside, too generic and slight to stand out.

This piece appeared in Mint.

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