The bar has been set really high for TV shows about the coming-of-age of the modern high schooler. Lauren Iungerich really upped the ante way back in June 2011 with the MTV show ‘Awkward,’ which broke boundaries in how to tell stories about kids in high school. Eight years later, she does it again with her new Netflix series ‘On My Block’ that takes the camera away from their lives in school and into the rough LA inner-city neighborhood to favorable reviews.
Another Netflix original series, ‘Sex Education’ then delivers an intelligent and progressive look into the lives of British teenagers and the intersection between sex and how they view themselves as they go through their puberty. It felt authentic and true to the teenage experience while presenting beautiful and complicated storylines that were not only progressive but also illuminating.
So the Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher created and executive produced ‘Never Have I Ever’ by Netflix has a high standard to meet and in its first season, it’s still trying to find its legs.
The premise centers around Devi, a first generation Indian American girl with a fiery temper. She is a sophomore in high school, highly intelligent and competitive, and is no longer content with being seen as a nerd. As a family tragedy pushes her to re-examine her life and puberty is hitting her hard, she is determined to become popular and even date one of the more popular kids in school.
A lot of Devi’s actions are predicated by the loss of her dad and the rush of hormones. She’s constantly fighting with her mom, who comes off as a stereotypical traditional Indian mother, and is constantly jealous of her cousin Kamala, who is a gorgeous college student who lives with them.
Filling out the rest of the world are Fabiola and Eleanor, her two best friends and are both equally as nerdy. Fabiola is in the robotics club while Eleanor is a campy drama geek. Then there’s Ben, her nemesis, who she is constantly in competition for the highest honours in school. And then there’s Paxton, the upperclassman from the swim team who she has a major crush on.
Between her relentless arguments with her mother and her therapist, battling her own insecurities in school, and shunning her own ethnic origins, Devi and her incendiary personality is quite hard to sympathise with. At the root of all this is the tragic loss of her father, which she chooses to avoid rather than face head on.
What could be a touching character study on a teenager navigating puberty and loss ends up hitting the emotional beats quickly and by the numbers, in favor of embarrassing situations that Devi finds herself in due to her tempestuous character, and her denial about the trauma of her family tragedy.
There are stories here that have been told before from coming out, lies and rumours about sex, being embarrassed by your own race and parents, and so on and ‘Never Have I Ever’ doesn’t do anything new to these narratives. Instead of reaching out to the emotional core, it is more invested in trying to be funny but it doesn’t quite land the punchlines.
Even with its diverse cast, they aren’t as refined or experienced as actors to really carry the lightweight humor or the heavier stuff. Newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan doesn’t have the maturity of say Ashley Rickards (of Awkward), Sierra Capri (of On my Block) or Emma Mackey (of Sex Education) so it’s hard to latch on to her. She’s committed, but she’s still trying to find her footing as do much of the younger cast with the exception of Lee Rodriguez (who plays Fabiola) and Jaren Lewison (who plays Ben). On the other hand, the older actors like comedian Niecy Nash, who plays Devi’s therapist, and the amazing Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Devi’s mother, are brilliant.
Unlike ‘Sex Education’ or ‘On My Block,’ who had brilliant first seasons, the debut season of ‘Never Have I Ever’ feels like it is still finding its footing. It’s best when it gets down to the more profound connections like those explored with Fabiola’s subplot involving her family and the discovery of Ben’s own personal life, and of course, the big confrontation that the season is pushing us towards between Devi and her mom. The lead up to these story elements are weak because it seems, like Devi, to avoid the serious stuff in preference for the shallow teenage stuff, which can be handled simultaneously the way shows like ‘On My Block’ and ‘Sex Education’ does it.
But when the showrunners get their footing, there’s a lot of potential here for the show to grow into something worth watching. The first season feels like one extended pilot and the foundations would have been laid for a much better second season if it finds its audience.
Never Have I Ever launches globally on Netflix this April 27, 2020.