“Never Have I Ever,” Reviewed: Hotness and Hotheads

As the new Netflix coming-of-age series “Never Have I Ever” begins, its fifteen-year-old heroine, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), before heading off to her first day of sophomore year in high school, kneels in front of her household’s shrine. “Hey, gods,” she says, hands folded in prayer. “It’s Devi V., your favorite Hindu girl in the San Fernando Valley. What’s poppin’?” She’s wearing a cute, casual outfit and is in a tidy middle-class bedroom. Last year “pretty much sucked,” she says, so this year she has some requests: she wants to be invited to a party where she has “the opportunity to say, ‘No cocaine for me, thanks’ ”; thinner forearm hair; and, most important, a boyfriend—“and not some nerd from one of my A.P. classes.” He should be “a stone-cold hottie who can rock me all night long,” she says. (This is startling—she looks more like a kid than an adult.) “He can be dumb—I don’t care. Thanks for considering. I love you guys.”

This voice—assured, breezy, somewhat self-aware aspirational hedonism, with a keen appreciation of stone-cold hotties—will be recognizable to fans of Mindy Kaling, the Nora Ephron-loving “Office” alum, memoirist, and longtime proponent of the rom-com, who co-created the semi-autobiographical “Never Have I Ever” with her “Mindy Project” colleague Lang Fisher. The series, like the drinking game with which it shares a title, is about innocence and experience—and about a teen-ager’s plucky, naïve desire for more. It asserts itself with sassy confidence right away, not just in Devi’s voice but in the narrative’s framing. “You may ask yourself, Why is sports icon John McEnroe narrating this tale?” John McEnroe asks, reasonably, in voice-over. One reason is evident immediately: it’s funny. After a brief montage of McEnroe jumping around and hoisting trophies in a terry-cloth headband (“Wow, I look great there!”), he presses on with Devi’s backstory.

Devi’s parents, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), came to the U.S. in September, 2001, McEnroe tells us: “Not a super chill time to be a brown person in America.” They were a happy family of three; last year, while watching Devi’s harp solo at a school concert, Mohan had a heart attack and died. Soon after, Devi’s legs stopped working, and she spent three months in a wheelchair. She was cured from her paralysis by a glimpse of the school hottie, a swimmer named Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), which inspired her to rise up and walk. (Cue the opening credits, to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”) By the end of the first episode, Devi has introduced herself to Paxton and offered to have sex with him.

If you’re thinking, Yowsers, I agree. The series is itself like a socially awkward teen-age nerd—charming but maladroit, heedless, a little exhausting. (The wheelchair subplot is treated as a lightly embarrassing trauma, then abandoned.) Like many nerds, it leads with a bit of showing off: there’s a montage of Devi’s having competed for No. 1 since elementary school with her rival, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison). “You might call them the John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors of Sherman Oaks High School,” McEnroe says. “Not to make this about me.” Devi and her two high-achieving best friends, the theatre nerd Eleanor (Ramona Young) and the robotics whiz Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are known, McEnroe explains, by “the lightly racist nickname the U.N., ” because they’re “an ethnically diverse group of academically focussed, um, I can’t think of a better word for dorks.” Devi is also a “hothead,” we’re told. Just as McEnroe once screamed at umpires and threw tennis racquets, Devi blows up at her friends and relatives, and does things like smash her chemistry beaker when Ben gets a better grade. She’s feisty, which we like, and grieving, which we empathize with, but she’s also difficult. And both she and the series itself tend to fixate on hotness in a way that’s off-putting, suggesting that nerds of many ages simply can’t differentiate between beauty, desire, love, and connection. Devi’s frequent comments on looks are meant to charm us, I think—as when she exclaims that a visitor to the house is “hot,” when she’d worried he’d be “an uggo.” The visitor politely thanks her, but some of us will cringe.

And yet this beauty fixation, in the form of Paxton—his meaningful glances, his meaningful hoisting himself out of a pool—sets in motion a kind of hero’s journey for Devi, to the benefit of characters and viewers alike. Paxton, like many classic rom-com dreamboats, has a soul behind his penetrating stare. He’s a jock who doesn’t care about school, but, as played by Barnet, he has the subtle thoughtfulness of rom-com hunks from Jake Ryan to Gilbert Blythe to Jordan Catalano to Peter Kavinsky, and, like them, he’s observant and often kind. Many actual teen-agers learn the hard way that the love interest they’ve been idealizing is less appealing than they’d imagined, but in rom-coms, including this one, we’re shown what might have happened if that fantasy had been right. Devi has a dream in the second episode in which Paxton whips off his shirt, revealing truly astonishing washboard abs; praises her oversized T-shirt and the scent of her dandruff shampoo; and wants to have sex with her. But what he does during Devi’s waking hours is almost as fantastical: he notices how she’s feeling, asks her how she is, and begins to welcome her into his happy, easygoing world. “Whoa, Devi, you came!” he says, when she shows up at a cool-kid party. “And brought California Brittle! This slaps. Come in!”

Still, the series often falls prey to what I think of as the “Bridget Jones” movie problem: we’re shown the heroine’s semi-comedic blundering more than her charm, and, therefore, an idealized dreamboat falling for a blurting, insecure everywoman. (“Beer me!” Devi says to Paxton, at the party. “Love that bread soda.”) Another Netflix rom-com megahit, the stellar “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on the novel by Jenny Han, did much to elevate the awkward-bookworm-meets-sensitive-jock form—its characters have tender, funny conversations, and, though its heroine has growing up to do, she’s stubbornly principled and kind. (“Boys” is also brilliant at conveying the complicated relationship between romanticization and romance in a teen-age girl’s mind.) “Never” shares an aesthetic and some plot elements with “Boys” but often lacks its emotional acuity. For much of the ten-episode arc, the writers struggle to imagine a realistic interaction between Devi and Paxton, or to convince us of why he’s increasingly drawn to her; their fledgling attraction can be butterflies-inducing but vaguely embarrassing in its unreality. It’s like watching a “Pride and Prejudice” in which Mr. Darcy falls for Kitty or Lydia, trusting that there’s an Elizabeth within.

Kaling productions, including “The Mindy Project,” in which she starred as a fashionable, boy-crazy ob-gyn—a kind of “Legally Blonde, M.D.”—are at their best when portraying friendship between equals that turns into love. Perhaps this is because such stories, more common in real life, are also more easily observed, full of the little pleasures and interactions that add up to intimacy. “Never” takes care to humanize Ben, Devi’s rival, and to develop a grudging affection between them. A climactic sequence at a Model U.N. conference, in which the volatile nature of their friendship is reflected on a mock world stage, is particularly well done, and hilarious: Devi, incensed about a seeming betrayal, acquires nukes for her country, Equatorial Guinea, and declares war on the U.S., a.k.a. Ben. But their first truly vulnerable conversation, in which they confess their mutual loneliness after Devi’s mom invites Ben to dinner, is one of the series’ best scenes, and its bravest.

The series is fairly successful at showing us familial love, too, and at evoking grief, including in scenes with Devi’s therapist (Niecy Nash). Devi’s late father keeps appearing to her in visions, like a benevolent version of Hamlet’s father: he’s a handsome, warmhearted, tomato-growing, Vespa-riding mensch, and a McEnroe enthusiast. (“He’s a firecracker!” he says to Devi, watching tennis on TV. “Look at him standing up to that umpire.”) “Never” does so much well, and the actors are so good, that it’s painful when it goes awry. The greatness of the coming-of-age rom-com is its ability to show us how realistic people, even nerdy ones, might better understand and connect to one another if they weren’t so awkward and scared all the time. A study of hotness, by hotheads, is less satisfying. In the season’s lovely final scene, Devi asserts herself with vulnerability and confidence, moving beyond her baser instincts, and experiences the happiness that can result. If there’s a second season, we’ll see if the series can do that, too. (copied from the New Yorker)

Sarah Larson is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her column, Podcast Dept., appears on newyor­ker.com.

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