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devi smiling in never have I ever Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

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Netflix’s Never Have I Ever turns a bizarre cameo into a poignant statement

Mindy Kaling’s teen sitcom thrives on this kind of weird specificity

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

About one minute into Netflix’s teen sitcom Never Have I Ever, a voiceover by tennis legend John McEnroe introduces the main character. The three-time Wimbledon Grand Slam winner, who achieved peak popularity in the 1980s, is an odd choice of narrator for a story about a teenage girl in 2020. Teen shows often use some sort of narrative framing device to capture a character’s internal monologues, such as Syd writing to her diary in I Am Not Okay With This. But it’s particularly hilarious to see that typical narrative device turned into a 61-year-old man explaining a teenager’s internal struggles over parties, boys, and popularity, especially when the moment before, that teenager, Devi (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) was praying to the Hindu gods for a hunky boyfriend.

That narrative choice helps the quirky humor of Mindy Kaling’s new series kick off right in its opening moments. Never Have I Ever weaves a heartfelt coming-of-age story about loss and grief, but the show is also deliciously funny, relying on the specificity of its characters and their experiences to deliver humor.

devi, her cousin, and her mom in saris Photos: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Never Have I Ever follows first-generation Indian-American Devi Vishwakumar, a high-achieving high-school sophomore living in Southern California with her strict mother (Poorna Jagannathan) and dutiful cousin (Richa Shukla). Not only is Devi navigating the perils of high school and the clash of cultural expectations, she’s also dealing with her father’s recent death, which left her psychologically paralyzed, leading to a painful freshman year. This year, she’s determined to reinvent herself and her best friends, and become “cool.”

Never Have I Ever’s characters transcend the typical stock types found in teen-geared narratives. Devi is a high-achieving honor student, but she’s also feisty and not afraid to speak her mind. Because she’s processing the trauma of her father’s death, she’s sometimes selfish or angry. The show primarily focuses on her arc, so while her behavior can be self-centered, she gradually comes to terms with her grief. It’s a well-fleshed-out emotional arc, but her trauma isn’t what makes her such a memorable character — it’s because she’s so freakin’ funny.

Ramakrishnan delivers her dialogue with the particular self-assuredness of a gifted high-school kid. When Devi’s academic rival Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) doubts she has a date, she immediately replies, “Well, I’m not going to be able to walk again tomorrow, because I’m about to go get railed. Peace out, virgin,” and saunters away, leaving Ben aghast. Devi is hot-tempered, selfish, and an absolutely wonderful character. As the lead, she commandeers the show, but the cast is full of characters who not only get their own fulfilling emotional arcs, but have enough quirks to flesh them out.

fabiola looks at eleanor, who is about to burst out into song Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Devi’s two best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), each have their own individual stories, made richer by the fact that Fabiola confides her secrets to a simple few-phrase-speaking robot she built for robotics club, while Eleanor’s response to hardship is dramatically declaring she’s done with theater, and trading her colorful, flamboyant outfits for beige attire. Ben Gross evolves from pompous tryhard to genuinely endearing character, not just because of his actual character growth, but also because of the small details which flesh him out from Devi’s perception of him: He frequently posts on the Rick and Morty subreddit, and keeps a poster of Andy Samberg in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping over his bed. Devi’s crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet, who, sidebar, has the coolest name to grace a fictional high-school hottie since Troy Bolton) is given more nuance than the typical popular jock, especially when he grows to genuinely appreciate Devi’s friendship. It’s easy to invest in these characters because they feel like real teenagers with real specificities. Each of them have their own problems, which are tackled with equal parts heart and humor.

Never Have I Ever is rich in cultural and generational specificity, highlighting little details in the Indian-American, first-generation immigrant, and Gen-Z high-school experiences. At one point, Devi’s mother comments about how every Indian family she knows is obsessed with fountains. The family is on the way to a Hindu holiday celebration — which is being held at Devi’s high school. (First-generation Americans who’ve trekked to rented-out high schools to celebrate cultural holidays will deeply understand.) The third episode starts with Devi, Fabiola, and Eleanor trying to make a TikTok-like video to snag her crush’s attention. Kamala gets sucked into Riverdale, and becomes inspired by Jughead and Betty’s romance. Unlike the overly dramatic Riverdale, which delights in absurd situations like Archie fighting a bear and Cheryl setting her house on fire, Never Have I Ever is grounded in real experiences of processing grief, navigating high-school friendships, and grappling with family expectations.

At its heart, Never Have I Ever is a story about coping with grief and navigating the perils of high school. It’s a common arc, even with the splash of first-generation American cultural conflict. But what makes the show memorable is the fully fleshed-out characters who bring the specific humor, which then fold into the plot and turn from just funny bits into meaningful commentary. By the end of the show, we know why it’s John McEnroe narrating Devi’s thoughts, since her father was an avid tennis fan, and by the end, McEnroe himself makes a heartfelt appearance, as Devi comes to terms with her losses. The plot device used for a laugh becomes poignant without losing its humor, a balancing act of grounded humor and emotion that the show pulls off spectacularly.

Never Have I Ever is streaming on Netflix now.

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