Clever writing elevates familiar teen comedy tropes in ‘Never Have I Ever’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Netflix’s newest entry in its teenage comedy-drama pantheon is, without a doubt, also its best. Loosely based on writer and executive producer Mindy Kaling’s upbringing as a first-generation Indian-American teenager in the United States, “Never Have I Ever,” which released on the streaming service April 27, is equal parts earnest and subversive, universal and specific. 

The show is quick to find its footing as a coming-of-age story, mostly because it adopts many of the narrative and stylistic elements common in the teen comedy and romance genres. But soon, it emerges as a portrait of a unique and complex protagonist. Despite the occasional hiccups in storytelling and performances, “Never Have I Ever” is a sharply written, heartfelt ode to navigating the many pressures of growing up.

“Never Have I Ever” follows Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a teenager living in Los Angeles, as she enters her sophomore year of high school. As she begins the new year, Devi handles the typical pressures of being a high-performing student — in her classes as well as in a myriad of extracurriculars — while pursuing her crush: the school’s “it” boy Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).

The setup sounds familiar enough, but the show adds a layer of complexity to Devi’s character in the first few minutes alone; just months prior to the events of the show, Devi’s father passed away suddenly from a heart attack while attending her performance at an orchestra concert. Shortly after, the trauma from the incident left Devi paralyzed for three months. Although the show lets audiences into Devi’s life in many ways, it frequently focuses on her therapy sessions with a stern but understanding Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash). Devi lightheartedly discusses her love life and friendships with Dr. Ryan, but she struggles to process her feelings surrounding her father’s death and her subsequently strained relationship with her mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan).

“Never Have I Ever” does delve into Devi’s exploration of grief but rarely makes it the focus of her character; rather, the show is concerned with showcasing her stubbornness and sarcasm in her interactions with peers and family members. Ramakrishnan has a natural, consistent presence in her first major on-screen role and sensitively balances Devi’s navigation of trauma with her desire to overcome her classmates’ pity and unease around her.

The supporting performances, on the other hand, are a bit more across the board. As Nalini, Jagannathan is riveting and heartbreaking, and she manages to deliver lines of humor with a sharp, scathing tone. Richa Moorjani as Devi’s Indian cousin, Kamala, who stays with the Vishwakumars as she completes her Ph.D., runs away with some of the funniest moments in the show — but her performance is easily the most exaggerated and stereotypical against the other more nuanced performances.

In comparison to the show’s complex rendering of family dynamics, the portrayal of Devi’s interactions with her friends and classmates feels much more one-note. This aspect is where the script feels most traditional; every one of Devi’s friends, classmates and love interests feels like a character trope that audiences can recognize in various other teen comedy staples. Despite engaging performances from many of the young actors in the show, one can’t help but feel as if their characters are written into overly convenient tropes.

While the storytelling may often rely too heavily on its genre formatting, “Never Have I Ever” ultimately succeeds because of the strength of its writing. Every episode involves moments of subtle humor and poignance, and it’s difficult to not feel moved by the emotions and depth at the core of the show. At its best, “Never Have I Ever” illustrates Devi’s unease around growing into the traditions of her family — whether they be around religion or relationships — and the writers tackle themes of loyalty, friendship and personal growth with genuine compassion.

“Never Have I Ever” has its problems, with its most glaring issue being its struggle to seamlessly shift from sincerity to over-the-top comedy and back. But ultimately, it’s hard not to be moved by the show’s optimism and empathy. Despite its tried-and-true format, “Never Have I Ever,” with an endearing sense of humor and a compelling protagonist, is worth sticking around for.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.