In 2020, the first episode of a new Netflix Orignal series was released. Entitled Never Have I Ever, the T.V. show initially seemed like a generic coming-of-age plotline filled with cheesy teen romance and high school drama. Nonetheless, agreeing to watch the first episode with my mom in the middle of the pandemic, I was immediately hooked by the charming Maitreyi Ramakrishnan maybe because, in some ways, I saw a bit of myself in her character Devi. Before long, my dad had joined us in finishing the season and, while it is expectedly cheesy, the high school drama is probably the first I have seen to not only represent, but highlight a South Indian teenage girl.
Never Have I Ever follows American-Tamil Devi Vishwakumar as she navigates her way from sophomore to junior to senior year of high school in Sherman Oaks, California. Grappling with the death of her father, a psychological trauma injury, and a socially disastrous freshman year, Devi embarks on a journey to improve her social status. Intertwining various storylines including that of Devi’s crush Paxton-Hall Yoshida, her cousin Kamala, and her best friends Eleanor and Fabiola, Never Have I Ever seamlessly integrates culture, current trends, and relatable gimmicks into a light, palatable watch for any viewer. However, what makes Never Have I Ever truly unique is its ability to accurately depict the first-generation child experience. It portrays the internal breach of wondering whether the displacement you feel among your peers is a product of your Indian upbringing or just a product of being you. The message is clear in Ramakrishnan’s distinctive reactions and expressions, and it is reassuring to watch Devi find herself when thousands of Indian girls in her situation are attempting the same.
My further connecting to the series is the fact that Devi is specifically South Indian. To me, this holds significance in educating viewers about the difference between the unique and diverse areas of India. It shows another side of Indian culture, moving past Diwali and Butter Chicken; speaking more to Ganesha Pooja and Dosas. It exposes the experiences I grew up with, traditions that have been our secret for long enough. Having said this, it also does not do this in a gaudy or inflated way. The subtle refrences embedded within each episode allow a steady introduction to a foreign world, like feeding the potatos from sambar to a child one at a time.
Both globally and in my own circle, there is no doubt that Never Have I Ever is a huge hit. Everyone everywhere seems to have binged the short, captivating three seasons and are hungry for a fourth. I can’t say I disagree with them. However, one of the largest critiques I have heard about the show regards its illusive approach to both high school and being part of the Indian community. Some claim that it focuses too much on relationships and sex without being a well-rounded picture of what it means to grow up as a South Indian girl today. There is a critical flaw in this argument though; television is meant to be entertaining, and more than ever nowadays, to break stereotypes. Most of the teenage girls I know are not caught in a love triangle while also maintaining a 5.0 GPA and throwing ragers. But, if it didn’t include these glorifications, no one would keep watching it. It is the fact that the same images which have been plastered on screens for generations are now being taken on by a South Indian character. Yes, she has an Indian mom who does not allow her to date, but one that will stand up for her daughter whenever necessary. Yes, she is on debate team, but she can confidently throw coffee in the face of a boy who mistreats her. And yes, she eats with her hands, but uses those same hands to pick her friends up out of tough situations. Devi Vishwakumar is a South Indian girl — but she is also so much more than that and that, to me, is the most profound message of the show. On the surface, Never Have I Ever is just another teen comedy-drama, but it is so much more. It is representation. It is humor and warmth. It is permission for girls everywhere to be more than one thing, and for the rest of the world to accept it.
If you have not yet seen Never Have I Ever, I would highly recommend giving it a chance. I understand that it may not be everyone’s cup of chai, but if anything, it will give you a peek inside a world completely different from your own. With each episode being only about thirty minutes, you will fly through the series experiencing a range of emotions. As Petrana Radulovic puts it, Never Have I Ever is successful at “highlighting little details in the Indian-American, first-generation immigrant, and Gen-Z high-school experiences”. From Nalani to Kamala, to Devi herself, watching the series will put into perspective both the high school and immigrant experience in a hilarious heartfelt, and more inclusive package of what it means to grow up in a diverse but terrifying world.
“Normal teenagers end up in prison, or worse, working in Jersey Mike’s” – Nalini, Never Have I Ever