It is said that the best way to make something universal is to be specific. This perfectly encapsulates Never Have I Ever, the latest creation from Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project). The show focuses on Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrisnan), a first-generation Indian-American high school sophomore with a habit of getting into difficult situations.
The specifics of Devi’s cultural background are central to her character and make her a fully realized and completely relatable teen. She is a high achieving student who dreams of getting into Princeton, loves to eat BBQ ribs, and prays to the Hindu gods to give her a boyfriend who’s a “stone-cold hottie who could rock [her] all night long.”
The main plot point that sets the series off is Devi’s determination to get a boyfriend. This is a show that could easily have devolved into yet another story about a boy crazy girl who spends all of her time obsessing over her latest crush, but thankfully doesn’t, which is the genius of Mindy Kaling. Like with her work on The Mindy Project, Kaling leans right into the fact that straight girls like boys and often obsess over their looks, which is part of being a teenager, but not everything that they are.
Devi is a full person. She’s smart, driven, funny, impulsive, musical and sarcastic. She might like boys (maybe even a little too much), but she is also obsessed with getting into an Ivy League school. As much time as Devi spends lusting over the six-pack abs of Paxton Hill-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), she also spends time sparring with her academic rival Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), hanging out with her best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), and fighting with her mother (Poorna Jagannathan).
I’ve always liked Mindy Kaling’s work and when she’s at her best, she is brilliant. Never Have I Ever is Kaling at her best. This show has taken all the best bits of The Mindy Project and built on them. I expected Never Have I Ever to be funny. I didn’t expect it to make me laugh out loud.
Even more surprising is the emotional depths that the show dives into. While billed as a comedy (and it is definitely that) at its core, it is a nuanced portrait of grief and loss. The storylines are handled with sensitivity, but also incredible insight into the complexities of losing someone who was central to your life and identity. Never Have I Ever also features complex relationships between characters that grow and progress as the series unfolds. The relationship between Devi and her mum is one that anyone who’s ever been a teenaged girl will recognize. The specifics might be different, but the dynamic is familiar.
Incredible care has been given to all the characters and their backstories. Everyone is given a solid story arc and room to grow throughout the series. Even relatively minor characters are given more substance than is usual on a half hour comedy series. We are given insight into the history teacher’s personal relationships and Paxton’s sisters’ goals and ambitions. These characters aren’t significant, and these revelations don’t really add to the plot. What they do is create a world of real people. At every turn, each character defies expectations, never quite making the decision you expect. By the end, it’s hard not to see these characters are real, flesh and blood people.
This is the first professional role for Maitreyi, who was cast from 15,000 hopefuls, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s a natural on screen, filling the part with delightful sarcasm and sharp wit that feels easy and unscripted. Ramona Young as Eleanor, Devi’s aspiring actress friend, is another standout. Her deadpan delivery is the opposite of what you’d expect from the character, which is what makes it work so well.
Hopefully, Never Have I Ever continues the trend of more diversity on screen, so it’s no longer seen as remarkable to have a show where almost the entire cast features people of colour, most of them women. Because in addition to being a ton of fun, Never Have I Ever also proves that there is a ton of talent out there that the entertainment industry at large needs to start tapping into.
Here’s The Rundown:
It’ll make you laugh: There are very few shows out there that have the ability to make me laugh out loud, but this is one of them. It runs the comedy gambit from good old fashioned slapstick to witty one-liners and situational humour. It’s got it all, including the overall bemusement you’ll feel throughout as it’s narrated by John McEnroe (with a cameo from Andy Samberg).
It’ll make you cry: Really, there’s not much this show can’t do. Especially in the latter half of the season once you’ve really bonded with the characters, it takes you for a rollercoaster of emotions. If the final episode doesn’t make you tear up, you’re not watching it right.
BONUS: Faze had a chance to speak with Canada’s own, star Maitreyi Ramakrisnan about her role as Devi and representing Canada on set. (ALERT! The interview contains mild spoilers.)
Faze: What made you want to audition for the show?
MAITREYI: It was a chance to hang out with my best friend. She had found the call from Mindy online and we saw it as a chance to hang out and create something. It would be “that time we auditioned for a TV show.” and we could look back on it and laugh about it.
Faze: Can you talk about your approach to playing Devi? I noticed, particularly in the pilot, that a lot of your gestures and facial expressions are mirroring Mindy Kailing’s. Was that intentional?
MAITREYI: I love it. You really are a fan. There’s a lot of Mindy in the show. Devi’s clothes and all the colours are very Mindy. The dry and sarcastic part of Devi is more like me. The bright and bubbly parts are more like Mindy. Devi’s very much a combination of both of us.
Lang (Fisher, showrunner and executive producer) and Mindy were very detailed on set and picked up on a lot of my slang and incorporated it into Devi. When I say “What’s popping?” in the trailer, that’s something I said a lot on set and then it started to show up all over the script.
Faze: What is your favourite part about playing Devi? Is there anything about Devi that is completely different from yourself that you really like playing?
MAITREYI: She’s super competent and smart as hell. Devi never dumbs herself down for anyone. I’m kind of like that. I was very good in school and gave everything 200 percent, even things that were lost causes. I like how loud Devi is. She goes for what she wants. I liked exploring the boy crazy aspect of Devi’s personality since that’s completely different from me.
Faze: Do you feel the series reflects your own experiences? Do you find yourself relating to a lot of the scenes?
MAITREYI: Obviously, it’s not exactly the same since one’s American and one’s Canadian, but the core is the same. At the core 100 percent there’s a lot of similarities especially when Devi is figuring out her identity.
Faze: Speaking about identity, can you talk about filming episode 4 at Ganesh Puja?
MAITREYI: It was such an awesome moment to see a lead of a show in a half-sari surrounded by a cultural event and not as a “look, isn’t this cool?” but as a part of someone’s life. I love the moment when Devi’s friend talks about how he’s learned to embrace being Indian at college and Devi can’t believe it. He schools her about her culture. Or when Devi mocks the dancers and the sister of one of the dancers schools her as well. It was really hard to keep a scowl while watching the dancers because they were so amazing. I could never do that.
Faze: Your character plays the harp in the show. This is an unusual instrument, was it picked because you play the harp?
MAITREYI: I don’t play the harp, but I learned to play a little. I know the basics, but the difficult stuff was the playback. My musical background helped (she plays the piano and a little violin). I really loved playing it. I would sometimes eat my lunch really fast and then go back into the house on set and play. And everyone would be like, there she goes again. The music teacher on set said that she’d love to keep teaching me. I love to learn to play different instruments, more than learning new languages, because music creates such a connection with people.
Faze: What is your favourite episode/moment from the show?
MAITREYI: A lot of the best moments on set were with Lee (Rodriguez) and Ramona (Young). A lot of the time we would just be laughing and no one would know why, so working with them was a lot of fun.
After seeing everything, my favourite is Episode 9 (…had to be on my best behaviour). The script was just so good. When you see the flashback with Devi’s mother and father and the last words “I hate you” and you assume that those were her last words to her father. Then the flashbacks continue and it turns out she said that to her mother and the episode goes on to explore their relationship.
Faze: What do you hope people take away from the show?
MAITREYI: I hope that people of all backgrounds really feel heard and seen. And not just South Asians. Also those like Paxton who feel stuck being seen as a dumb jock, but are more than that, or like Ben whose family life isn’t as great as everyone thinks it is.
Faze: Anything to add? What are your hopes for the future?
MAITREYI: Well, I hope for a second season.
I’m super proud of being Canadian. When I came home for a break over Labour Day, I left most of my clothes in LA, so I had an empty suitcase and I stuffed it full of maple candies and cookies and brought them back with me. I gave them to everyone on set, the other actors, hair and makeup people, costume people, cameramen, sound guys, everyone.
The series premieres April 27th, 2020 only on Netflix.