It’s been a hot minute since my last post, mostly because I’ve been overdosing on television and video games in my spare time (so nothing truly productive if you ask my parents). I bring up the ‘rents because my topic of discussion for today really hits home when it comes to growing up with immigrant parents and all of the strange expectations tied to it. More specifically, what it’s like growing up in a ‘brown’ household versus, well, anything else. Citizens and non-citizens everywhere might have a fresh impression of this in their minds too, for after all, Mindy Kaling just recently dropped her new TV series, Never Have I Ever on April 27th. The show definitely debuted at the perfect time when we were really in need of something new and refreshing given these lock-down days. I personally enjoyed this first season, and I found that many friends who’ve also watched the show really liked it as well. The feedback online has been immense, thrusting the series to some really popular heights in almost no time at all. However, is it really that great of a show? At face value it’s entertaining, but if you’re a chronic Mindy follower like myself, you might have some shared opinions. Here’s what I think!
The Things I Liked
It’s Like a fun Adventure for a day.
I think I echo the sentiments of many when I say I unexpectedly started and finished watching the show on the same day. Long-gone are the days of standard 20-something episode show seasons, and I’m not quite sure why? The sensible answer that comes to mind is money/budget restrictions, but a part of me believes it’s related to “expert” studies in Hollywood that predict people won’t stick around for longer showrunners. If that is the case, they really don’t know the people! In a land where binge-watching has become a societal norm, it might be hard to argue my point because ANY show can be digested in 24 hours these days, but I found there was more than that with Never Have I Ever. This show causes its audience to get lost in the story completely, and then next thing you know, the season is over! I truly believe that what it boils down to is the show blending together multiple genres that hit home all at once. Nowadays, the line of sight into television is very straightforward with your comedy shows, thrillers, criminal mysteries and dramas. Mindy Kaling has blended together a concoction that pulls on the collective usage of may different genres at once. Let’s start with the culture-card first. The immediate start of the show opens with the main character, Devi Vishawakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), praying at an altar to Hindu Gods. We can actually count on our hands how many American shows these days really venture into immigrant-central storylines, and for people of colour who are more and more occupying the first-world, it’s refreshing to see this representation in the mainstream media. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to the curiosity of seeing a show featuring a ‘brown girl’ from Mississauga. The next thing we immediately gain exposure to is the comedy, which isn’t surprising if you know Mindy Kaling’s track record. Suffice to say, the writing paired with the casting creates for a very funny show. The array of characters who make up Devi’s friends are simply a hot mess. Beneath this, though, the series has some very serious undertones. There is great sadness Devi and her family has to overcome after her father Mohan (played by the very sexy Sendhil Ramamurthy) passes way. The show explores areas of trauma, grief, mourning, and breaking points. There are also moments of great self-identification and resentment, which ultimately adds the drama factor to the show because there is non-stop pandemonium always afoot. One would expect that to be the case from a show focused on teenagers. There are so many more concepts explored, like social and wealth hierarchies and what happens when people from different worlds collide. I realize I’m writing in very vague terms, but my goal isn’t to spoil the show for you as much as it is to convince you that so much ground gets covered so quick and efficiently that you won’t realize you’re not hitting the pause button in-between episodes. I think the balance of so many genres and subject-areas is what really helps audiences stay glued to the TV. You might ask that if the show is so easy to finish, is it too short? I don’t think so. It’s very clear that with the initial success, there will most likely be another season, so we can assume this is not the end. However, even with what we’ve been given, at no point did it feel like the events were rushed or prolonged. My hats off to Kaling for planning the pace of the show really well thus far. My advice? Clean out your calendar and dive right in, and I promise you will watch the entire thing like a giant-sized movie.
Poking Light fun at Immigrant Upbringing.
As I mentioned in the opening of this post, Never Have I Ever touches on something many of us these days can relate to: the non-stop entertainment that is growing up raised by immigrant parents. From the weird back-home traditions, to sayings, superstitions, and stereotypical judgments against everyone else, it’s relieving to realize you’re not alone when you’re the first-generation Canadian or American in the household. Similarly, Devi is a first-generation Indo-American who tries her best to blend in with popular society at school while trying to appease her Indian mother who is still set in her ways. As the only-daughter, she has strict curfew, college expectations, and a solid no-boys policy to adhere to. In her household, her father was the one who always encouraged her more modern and American behavior, while her mom, Nalini (played by the talented Poorna Jagannathan), takes longer to break away from tradition. The show meets us at a confusing time when her father’s passing leaves her living solely under her mother’s rules, which causes friction in the relationship. One of the stereotypical additions to the show is Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who pretty much represents the embodiment of every typical Bollywood plot. She’s the cousin from India now living in America to study, but her parents back home have setup her arranged marriage. Nalini is all for it as she understands Indian customs and expectations, but Kamala has fallen for a boy at school and wants to give a go at love. Imagine the theatrics that ensue after that. The three ladies of the house also partake in a ‘brown-heavy’ episode (as I call it) where they celebrate a big Hindu event amongst other temple-going aunties (more on this below…). There are some really funny insights into ‘brown culture’ in this episode, such as when the Pandit goes off in Sanskrit and loses the entire audience in the confusion. He follows up by saying, “just kidding,” and the show proceeds to showcase him as just another average human being, whereas many onlookers like myself will tell you that Pandits tend to be given a little too much stature by worshippers. One of the more iconic moments is when Devi runs into her crush and mentions that she is torn between being told she is too Indian versus not Indian enough. I say this is iconic because it’s a battle a lot of us first-gen Canadians/Americans face within our families and cultures, mostly with regards to how far away we’ve grown from our cultural roots. For me, personally, my parents have always mocked throughout growing up, calling me “the Canadian child”. I’m not too bothered by it, though, cause when I see the embarrassing things going on via Stabroek News, I cling to being Canadian and not from the bush (don’t let that sting my fellow Guyanese). Anyway, to get back on track, we’ve seen many attempts in the past to bring Indian culture to American screens with titles like Bride and Prejudice or Slumdog Millionaire. However, movies come and go, and generations shift. In this new age of everything being raved about on social media, bringing about a show like this that fuses cultures was such a brilliant idea, especially considering the world is in lockdown; there is basically nothing better to do except watch and talk. Here’s hoping this paves the way for more culture shocks to come!
A Good Insight Into Modern Coming-of-age.
Let’s face it, the times are changing. What you and I went through in our adolescence was far different from what our parents went through. It’s safe to say, though, that what kids go through now is even more different from what we’ve been through (congrats on being the new old). I remember I didn’t start saying the f-word until I was almost 18, but nowadays it’s a playground word. Bullying, sex-talk, violence… a lot of things many of us experienced later on in life are now concepts that preschoolers are already facing. What I like about Never Have I Ever is that it doesn’t dive too far into the drama of teenage-hood that it becomes unreal, but showcases enough of the true challenges of what it means to grow up in aggressive society. First, let’s talk about fitting in. The pilot episode focuses on Devi and her two best-friends who are clearly portrayed as ‘losers’ at their school. Their mission is to climb the social scale, and part of that task entails getting boyfriends. Devi sets her sights on Paxton (played by Darren Barnet, who I will have you know I am ALLOWED to find immensely hot because he’s almost as old as I am despite playing a teenager in the show), the beautiful jock with the rockin’ body solid good-looks. Just when you think it’s super bold of her to directly ask him to have sex with her, it’s almost refreshing to see that there’s still a nervousness and innocence to her when she backs out of it due to not being ready. After all, she hasn’t beautified, she’s a virgin, and her mother would kill her, The show goes on to tackle what being a good friend is versus being a bad one; Devi is showcased in both lights, and what I like is that she isn’t perfectly good at any of it. The best part of this series, to me, is the introduction of therapy (the role of therapist played by the very funny Niecy Nash) when Devi loses her father. Going to see a phycologist has always been met with criticism by many cultures for not being practical, and the show takes a jab at that when Nalini (Devi’s mother) says it’s a concept for only white people. Anyone that knows me well enough will know that one of my biggest pet-peeves about Caribbean culture (and by relation Indian culture) is that the masses don’t believe in mental illness and deny what right is in front of them. Not only does Never Have I Ever showcase the necessity of therapy, but it also showcases the necessity for YOUNG PEOPLE. This is the time the mind if most fragile and impressionable, so kudos to Mindy Kaling for bringing that concept in. The show also handles subject matter like abandonment and absentee parents, something that definitely impacts youth a lot these days. Another big topic is coming out to one’s parents and social circles too. I think the best part of this journey, which you might conclude on your own too, is that when the season wraps up, you see there has been quite a bit of growth for many of the characters, and especially for Devi. This is the positive message I received that I also hope Kaling was trying to deliver: it is okay to deal with your emotions if it means figuring out who you are. It doesn’t have to be what the others at school want you to be or even what your parents expect you to be. Just be you!
The Things I Questioned
Too Much Character Development?
There are some shows where you find yourself begging for more action because the primary characters are just too boring. Then, you have situations like this (in my humble opinion) where I could have done with more central plot as opposed to the continued exposure to supporting characters. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I signed up to watch Devi’s life, so let’s leave it at that. I am all for character development, and I believe it’s an integral part of creating great endings where you yearn to continue being a part of their lives. However, I think Never Have I Ever managed to have maybe too much going on. We already have the 4 characters of the Vishwakumar household and their extended relatives, followed by the love interests, teacher, therapist, and slew of extras. If you’ve seen the show already, you’ve probably realized I left out the two best friends. First you have Eleanor (played by Ramona Young), who is the weird theater prodigy with an eccentric personality and mommy issues. In what seems to be an entire episode or more, Eleanor finds out that her mother who abandoned her to become an actress actually lives in the same city and works at a local restaurant. There are a lot of emotions, reunions, false promises, and disappointments galore that ensue. Then we have Fabiola (played by Lee Rodriguez), who is the nerdy bookworm with a strange robot and some deep identity issues. When Devi enlists a plan for all three girls to acquire boyfriends, Fabiola starts to realize she may be attracted to females, which leads down a path of self-realization and eventual coming-out scenes. My question is… did we need any of this? I know earlier I discussed that the variety of issues speak to adolescent growth and diversity in genres, but with a season we’ve established to be short and sweet, I felt it could have been sweeter with more Devi time. While the runaway Hollywood mom is a different tale, it seems like every other show features a gay identity crisis these days. I’m the last person to hate on this, but it didn’t add anything unique or different to the show that hasn’t already been discussed. The one thing I found myself craving was more backstory into Devi’s family life and maybe some more moments with her love interests. I’m not hating on the besties, but maybe they can get their own plot when they get their own spinoff show? Don’t hate me.
It was the first thing I thought as I started watching the show; the main character is a young Mindy Kaling. I suppose it is entirely possible that she ventured to create a show that touches on her actual upbringing, but without going down that route, I felt like Devi was a little bit too much of Mindy and not her own unique entity. One of the biggest similarities is the level of sarcasm and self-inflicted burns, something Mindy has been infamous for in her past shows. What really did it for me were the quick-witted comparisons to celebrity figures, something Mindy also often did on her own show, The Mindy Project. My sentiment is that any newcomer to the world of Kaling will probably find the progressive personality of a character like Devi witty, but some of us know it’s been done before. I think there were many ways to showcase an ambitious ‘brown’ teenager with a rebellious and comedic nature without going full on clone. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it’s just a thought, right?
False (Indian) Advertising.
If you’ve been following Mindy Kaling for as long as I have, you will have probably noticed that her Hollywood career has been predicated on her being the ‘Indian’ girl on the block. This identification first began when she played Kelly Kapoor on The Office, where the comedic aspect of the show dodged serious questions about her true heritage in the series. One might say she was just a secondary character, so maybe it didn’t matter that much, but then Mindy went on to become the protagonist of her very own show and that opened some gaps. In The Mindy Project, she played a version of herself known as Mindy Lahiri, who was also given an Indian cultural background and family. You might be wondering why I bring this up? There certainly isn’t anything wrong with Mindy’s association with being Indian, except for when it comes to how being Indian is represented in Never Have I Ever. The truth is, for a long time Mindy Kaling danced around her real ethnicity of being Sri Lankan while building a reality that she is simply Indian. As many diverse Torontonians would know, Tamil culture is quite different from Desi culture, so it becomes quite obvious that the ‘Indian’ in Never Have I Ever is really not the true definition of Indian. I know what you’re going to say here… yes, Tamil Nadu is a part of India, but I often felt like Mindy’s representation of India more called on roots of places like Mumbai and upon the mainstream Bollywood culture. In Never Have I Ever, you can tell by the naming conventions, like ‘Amma‘ or ‘Periyappa‘, that the family has Tamil origins, and yet “returning back home to India” is a recurring topic in the show. While the family is portrayed as Hindu, I found it interesting that of all the Bollywood songs that could have been selected for this show, they used Nagada Sang Dhol for the Ganesh Puja episode. It’s a far more occult song than what we’re used to hearing in modern-day Bollywood because of the style of movie it belongs to, but the main hook of the song has a way of also sounding similar to Tamil as opposed to Hindi. The song was paired to dancers in the episode who seemed to mimic the style of Bharatanatyam more so than regular Bollywood choreography, thus really emphasizing the Tamil culture over the Indian that Kaling has always portrayed. Lastly, the same episode featured many women in traditional Saris, but styled to match those of Tami Nadu as opposed to mainstream India. I found these contradictions bothered me because of Kaling’s representation factor; why suddenly call on the elements of her Sri Lankan background when she’s steered away from it for so many years? Why did she never fully debut herself as South Indian instead? My theory is that it boils down to America not being as diverse as, say, us Canadians. While we can distinguish the various differences between Asian descendants, America still deals in basic colours. In that world, brown is Indian, so perhaps Mindy went with what’s easiest to explain. On second thought, I remember a certain Canadian show starring a Guyanese actress, but the entire series was also built on her Indian heritage. Maybe show business just isn’t ready for the bold distinctions, and I feel it’s wrong. As someone who lives in a multicultural society, I believe it’s time to fully embrace the intimate differences of what makes up this diverse world we live in. A part of me would have liked to have seen the show be honest to the cultural baseline as either Indian or Sri Lankan. Imagine how cool that would have been? Knowing many amazing Sri Lankans and having Sri Lankan relatives, they certainly deserve that exposure. Well, the good news is that they can still rejoice knowing that underneath all that ‘Indian’, there is a lot more diversity at play, even if it’s not clear.
I feel like after reading the last few points, you might feel like I’m not a Mindy Kaling fan, but that is absolutely untrue! From day one, she won me over because even though I might feel some of her representation is inaccurate, she brings to the table many things. For starters, she breaks the Indian stereotype that you have to be light-skinned to be beautiful and successful; she is the actual embodiment of someone who breaks down racial barriers, especially with her extensive acting history involving many Caucasian performers. Mindy broke down another barrier, and perhaps a huge one… you don’t need to be bone skinny to be a gorgeous protagonist. She’s also genuinely funny without the vulgarity of a true comedian, wherein her comedy comes from her trying to just live her best life. Finally, she made it okay to laugh at oneself. I think a large part of the success from her show came from the fact that she could poke fun at her own looks, heritage, and experiences without going into depression or offending anyone else. If you have someone that cool just lying around in Hollywood, then why shouldn’t she continue to make brilliant television?
Alright, I will shut my trap now and leave you with this: pick a nice weekend where you’re free of any obligations and relax a little while binge-watching Never Have I Ever all in one go, because it’s super easy to do and is a whole bunch of fun. I’ve included some video snippets below to hype you up, so please check it out. Till next time!
“Never Have I Ever” IMDb, www.imdb.com/title/tt10062292.
“‘Never Have I Ever’ Review: Mindy Kaling Does Teen Comedy Right” Rolling Stone, www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-reviews/never-have-i-ever-netflix-review-mindy-kaling-987232.
“‘Never Have I Ever’ Is Full of Nuanced Diversity. Except for the Jewish Character.” alma, www.heyalma.com/never-have-i-ever-is-full-of-nuanced-diversity-except-for-the-jewish-character.
“Mindy Kaling’s Netflix Show Tells a New Kind of Story: One Like Hers” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/arts/television/mindy-kaling-never-have-I-ever-netflix.html.
“New Beyoncé, a Netflix teen rom-com, and other stuff we loved this week” Vox Media, www.vox.com/culture/2020/5/1/21243071/tv-binge-never-have-i-ever-normal-people-breeders-comeback-savage-remix-beyonce-tiktok-dance-say-so.
“Give Never Have I Ever a Chance” The Cut, www.thecut.com/2020/04/never-have-i-ever-review-give-this-imperfect-show-a-chance.html.
“Mindy Kaling’s Series Starring An Ontario Teen Finally Drops On Netflix This Month” Narcity, www.narcity.com/entertainment/ca/on/mindy-kalings-netflix-show-never-have-i-ever-stars-a-mississauga-born-actress.
“Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Is Hollywood’s Next Rising Star” TV Guide, www.tvguide.com/news/never-have-i-ever-maitreyi-ramakrishnan-interview-netflix.
Kaling, Mindy. “Never Have I Ever | Official Trailer | Netflix” YouTube, uploaded by NewOnNetflix, 15 April 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyOCCCbxwMQ. Accessed 17 May 2020.
Kaling, Mindy. “Never Have I Ever | Mindy Kaling & Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Celebrate Ganesh Puja Episode | Netflix” YouTube, uploaded by NewOnNetflix, 01 May 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzVYRST0h3Q. Accessed 17 May 2020.