It’s been over a year since we first learned about Mindy Kaling’s new project, a TV show loosely based on her life as a rebellious teenager, and even before it aired, it was already subverting expectations left and right. Just making a coming of age show about a South Asian teen was already colouring outside of the lines (which is a sad reflection on our representation in the media), but she also chose her lead through an open casting call that required “no ‘connections’, experience, or high-powered agencies.”
Last week, Never Have I Ever was released on Netflix, with Mississauga, Ontario, Canada born Maitreyi Ramakrishnan playing Devi Viswanathan, a 15 year old girl who, after going through a traumatic life experience, vows to lose her virginity and raise her status at school.
Before I even saw the show, I was surprised by the reaction. There were positive reviews, but the top tweet in the Mindy Kaling tag was this:
It’s nasty and uncalled for, but it was representative of many of the reactions people had to Never Have I Ever.
Despite her recent growth in the past, Kaling has had somewhat of a questionable track record when it came to representation and diversity. As a woman of colour, it’s undeniable that she has broken through several barriers and proved her talent ten times over as a writer, producer, actor, and showrunner. What she’s done with her success is often what people take issue with.
Previous criticisms have pointed to the way she staffed her writer’s rooms, the way she cast her love interests, and her representation of Indian culture or lack thereof. Initially defensive, Mindy has since realized the impact of her work, especially after having her daughter, and embraced the role of spokesperson that was thrust upon her. Never Have I Ever was a chance to demonstrate this growth.
So how does it stand up to that sort of scrutiny? Well, the show gets off to a rough start. I found the first three episodes are clunky, uncomfortable, and just not indicative of the rest of the show. Saddled with the task of setting up the premise of the show, introducing characters, and making the show funny enough to keep viewers engaged, Mindy also has to navigate the representation angle, the one part of the show that people would be examining the most.
Although well-meaning, the show starts off on the wrong foot. Hot-headed and rebellious Devi is embarrassed to be Indian, and vehemently rejects it whenever possible. Characters like Kamala, Devi’s Indian cousin who stays with them while she completes her degree, reinforce that being Indian is embarrassing and that traditionalism and culture are to be made fun of. In its attempts to poke fun at stereotypes, it sometimes reinforces them (like when Devi’s mother says that “smacking is still an acceptable punishment in many minority cultures”).
In her Elle profile, Mindy points out that we see Asian girls on teen shows only one way: “as nerds with overbearing parents”. What’s never pictured is the badass or the rebel, the one who defies everything. Part of that is rejecting your heritage, and I think a lot of second generation Indian kids feel the same way. We reject what makes us different in order to try and fit in. What’s lacking in the beginning of Never Have I Ever is any sort of balancing or redeeming force. While Devi is rejecting her culture, it almost seems like the viewer is supposed to as well.
It’s because of this that the show can feel like it’s performing rather than representing. What I mean is that it seems like Never Have I Ever is about Indians instead of for Indians. For example, there’s a scene in episode four where Devi and her mom go to Ganesh Puja and meet several “aunties.” It’s at this point that John McEnroe (the narrator for the show) explains what an “aunty” is. Anyone who’s Indian doesn’t need that explanation; we all know what an aunty is. I certainly don’t need John McEnroe of all people explaining it to me or pronouncing common Indian words like pundit and Ganesh incorrectly. Sure you could say that it educates people about culture, but if that were the case, the show wouldn’t also simultaneously poke fun at it.
After episode three however, Never Have I Ever takes on a new life. Instead of the one-dimensional portrayal, the show expands into a more nuanced, layered examination of living in North America but having a South Asian background. We start to see cracks in Devi’s bravado as it’s revealed that her actions are a result of her avoiding the major trauma of her life. Her relationship with her mother is explored and the family dynamics speak authentically to the difficulty of immigrating to a country and trying to raise a child in an unfamiliar culture. Devi’s cousin, whose parents are arranging a marriage for her, finds new meaning in a tradition that is so heavily sh-t on earlier in the show. And the very embarrassment that Devi feels for her culture is called into question, through her experiences of racism and microaggressions.
By the last episode, I was crying, a testament to Mindy’s artful story and plot. I went from hating the show to adoring it all in the span of ten episodes. I’ve even watched it twice since it came out. Like any show, the pilot and the first few episodes take their time to settle and find their rhythm. Unlike other shows, Mindy has to meet a higher standard than most. She’s expected to create perfection and represent everyone, an unreasonable standard placed on her purely because she’s one of the few people to make it into this space. If making a show about someone like Devi was already groundbreaking, how was the pilot ever supposed to live up to such hype?
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. It definitely isn’t. But there’s so much that Mindy does right. It’s so f-cking cool to see South Indian representation on screen. Indians on shows are usually North Indian and I love hearing people speak Tamil or seeing families eat dosas.
I also think her representation of queerness is excellent. It’s subtle, understated, and expertly navigates the process of coming out without heaping on pity or reinforcing the tired “gay struggle” storyline. The cast is diverse, and Devi’s friends are fully realized characters that show the multitudes of both women and people from different backgrounds. There’s a character with Down’s Syndrome who, rather than being pitied, is a fashionable, cool, kind-hearted character who has a personality beyond her disability. And for once, a teen romcom actually shows women being horny
just as much as their male counterparts. I know it seems like the bar is on the floor at this point, but these are important details and decisions that so many creators miss the mark on.
Is the show flawed? Yes. There are shortcomings, both in the show itself and in its representation. As many people pointed out, Mindy does fall into her old patterns at times like the fact that Devi’s love interests are white or white passing. However, it’s a great show in a lot of other ways.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about was that first tweet I saw before watching the show. It’s evident that a lot of people didn’t make it past the first few episodes, but it also speaks to how Mindy is perceived by her critics.
There’s something unique about when someone from a marginalized group breaks through. Suddenly, their work isn’t just their work; it’s the work of a whole community and demographic. In a lot of the tweets about Mindy’s show, people took the opportunity to not only drag Mindy, but people like Priyanka Chopra and Lilly Singh (who made a cringey and appropriative video last week). All of these women have flaws, but they also have their own successes, and it’s frustrating that their heritage forever ties them into one collective unit that places them on a pedestal that they are bound to fall from. It’s also a pedestal that’s seemingly only reserved for women and not men.
Mindy’s work will never be separated from her identity. And it shouldn’t. It’s what informs her unique perspective and the humour that’s symbolic of Mindy’s brand. But she’s shown that despite some missteps, she’s capable of listening to criticism and adapting her work. And she makes damn good shows too (even if it takes four episodes to realize that).