Occasionally, we end up watching a show because of reasons inexplicable to us. It might be because we once liked the premise of the show, or the actors are dear to us, or maybe it speaks to our past, or maybe we still have faith in Mindy Kaling’s production.
For the first two seasons, the show indulges a main character who is not very likeable and harbours the cliched high school dream of dating the most popular guy in her school. The show also touches upon the struggle that non-resident Indians face in their attempts to hold onto their traditional culture.
In a poignant way, the show captures that for the American Indians, to host a puja or to attend an Indian ceremony is to desperately claw into a culture that neither brings them joy nor adds any meaning to their lives. It is a ritual that is arbitrarily imposed on Devi, the young American-brought-up Indian protagonist. Through season 3, the show subtly points out that ‘culture’ evolves with people’s lives, and it is them who create their culture with their lived experiences.
The show also offers a grotesque picture of the ‘Indian aunty’ stereotype, where, unlike most immigrant communities, these women rejoice at each other’s failure. After Vishwakumars suffer the tragic loss of Devi’s father, her mother, Nalini, seeks comfort in all those places that resemble what was once her home. Only to realise that all those places and people have turned their back on her, and she is more American than she ever lay claim to it.
Season 3 of the show begins with a passive acceptance of the tragedy that the mother-daughter had suffered collectively. Devi Vishwakumar, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, walks into her high school, hand-in-hand with her long coveted high school crush, Paxton, played by Darren Barnet. It seems like Devi finally has all that she ever wanted, but it only takes one or two episodes to unravel the anxiety behind holding onto the “perfect” high school life that she found for herself.
Never Have I Ever seemingly appropriates high school teen flicks and offers all those brown girls growing up in America a chance to see themselves as the main characters in what Hollywood has long sold as the teenage dream. However, beneath all the fun and fickleness of a teen drama, the show’s protagonist is rooted in her trauma and grief over her father’s loss.
Unlike most teen dramas, Never Have I Ever does not use Devi’s father’s death as a plot device to add layers to the protagonist’s characterisation. Rather, the subject of grief and trauma becomes instrumental to Devi’s characterisation. Her character arc seems almost stagnant as she is unable to deal with the trauma and loss of her father’s death.
As long as she does not deal with the unresolved grief, her character refuses to be defined by anything else other than her tremendous loss of her father. As she takes one step forward, she is pulled back two steps backwards by her self-imposed guilt for allowing herself to be happy in the absence of her father.
With the support of her mother and her therapist, Devi heals in fits and starts. The show articulates how the trajectory of grief is never linear, and one can never make steady progress in a stipulated amount of time. Devi’s frequent spiral into her grief only makes her suffering more authentic to the viewers.
The new season also challenges the stereotype in which Devi’s love interests, Ben and Paxton, had been modelled after. It allows Paxton to grow out of his popular jock persona and shows his ability to grow into a more mature, responsible, and sensible young man. A deeper look into Ben’s personal struggle with family pressure and absentee parents make us feel more empathetic to someone who had only been an insufferable nerd in the show. The show allows these characters to grow out of Devi’s shadow and have a storyline of their own.
This season also introduces two new characters who become vital to the Indian diasporic representation on screen at large. Rhyah, played by Sarayu Blue, who befriends Nalini and her son Nirdesh, played by Anirudh Pisharody—a dreamy Indian boy who goes to an elite private school and becomes an instant heartthrob for Devi. Devi and Nirdesh enter into a whirlwind romance which comes to a halt as Devi is found having a breakdown in front of Rhyah. Seemingly a picture of concern and sympathy, Rhyah comforts Devi with soothing words only to make her son break up with Devi because she has too much trauma to be good for her son.
Des does as he is told, leaving Devi shocked at his unquestioned obedience to his mother. This incident in the show accurately captures how Indian mothers coddle their sons and make them susceptible to selfish and narcissistic behaviour because they have never been taught to put anyone else before themselves in their lives.
However, in the savouring style of Mindy Kaling, the show hints at Devi getting paired up with the adorable yet insufferable white boy, Ben, in its ending scene, throwing the audience once again into the throes of the addictive teen flick essence of the show.
Never Have I Ever has always been a show for the NRI, by the NRI, about the NRI. As an Indian audience, watching Never Have I Ever is almost like peeking in at life, at an experience that could never be similar to ours.
However, it is evident that while ‘Never Have I Ever’ represents the Indian diaspora living in the US, it entertains the rest of us, and thus, views poured in from all parts of the world as soon as the new season was released. Representation is not supposed to be universal, and perhaps, we do not always need to feel seen to enjoy a show.
Featured image source: The Guardian