There’s no denying that Mindy Kaling has become something of a powerhouse in television. From being one of the first batch of writers that turned the American version of The Office into the superlative piece of work that it became, to her wonderful observational exploration of romantic comedy tropes with The Mindy Project, to last year’s criminally underrated cinematic release Late Night, she has shown herself to be a brilliant hand at American comedy.
While her remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral was met with a more sniffy reaction, certainly by UK critics, for the most part she has delivered a fine run of work, and while not everything she has put her hands to has been a commercial success (Late Night deserved to be a bigger box office hit than it was), the good has far outweighed the bad.
Never Have I Ever, her latest series which is a co-creation with Lang Fisher, arrives on Netflix this week and is quite possibly the best thing she has lent her hand to, which is saying a lot given that she is one of the writers responsible for some of the very best episodes of The Office, and was Emmy nominated several times.
A teen comedy drama, Never Have I Ever arrives looking like the type of thirty-minute comedy that would find a home easily on NBC; it is after all a production from Universal Television that, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, has found a home away from home on the world’s biggest streaming platform.
Teen comedies and dramas have flourished on the streaming service in the last few years, with a plethora of movies and television series finding much success there, no surprise given that many teenagers avail themselves of the streaming platform, and while the series have ranged in quality and success, there is no denying that many of the shows have catered to many younger audiences through differing parts of life.
Not every show that Netflix has produced have been centred around solely white characters and it’s their willingness to take chances on scripts and stories centred around characters of various genders, sexualities, races and lives that have given their output an incredible degree of creativity and success. These aren’t just the typical middle or upper class struggles of white teens such as those seen in The O.C, One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek.
Never Have I Ever is the latest in an increasing long line of shows that devote themselves to coming of age stories in which the characters are not white. Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is a messy, complex character who doesn’t make things easy on those around her, or even makes it one hundred per-cent easy for the audience to completely like her either.
She can make decisions that are sometimes selfish or self-serving and her reaction to the consequences to those around her can give the light tone of the show considerable dramatic heft. Her two best friends, Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are Asian and African American and are even given their own sets of dramas and wonderfully well told stories to deal with, not least Eleanor’s relationship with her mother and Fabiola’s coming to terms with her sexuality.
Lee Rodriguez and Ramona Young are wonderful performers that the series never forgets, with the series placing genuine focus on them at various points in the series. Fabiola coming out to her mother is handled with warmth and good natured humour, and is genuinely emotional, while Eleanor is another opportunity for Ramona Young to walk on to a television series and steal whole scenes from in the manner that she has done already in Legends of Tomorrow and Santa Clarita Diet.
That this set of friends are not the usual clan of white people gives the series a fresh perspective, not least that the lead character and her family are Indian, and many elements of her culture are ripe for exploration, not least the fourth episode, written by Kaling, which the entire episode is given over to, as well as a brilliantly comedic exploration of what it means to be on the cusp of an arranged marriage, a storyline portrayed through Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani).
There are the usual sets of love triangle and rivalries throughout, but they are handled incredibly well, and while The Mindy Project gave over a large chunk of its six year run to exploring those sorts of ideas in minute detail, Never Have I Ever, on the basis of this first season, is happy enough to just let the stories play out and let the humour and charm come to the fore.
Even the more surreal touches are nicely handled, not least the fact the entire series is narrated in increasingly hilarious fashion by tennis player John McEnroe (don’t worry, the reason why is explained in the show), while many of the jokes and one-liners are legitimately laugh out loud funny.
None of it would work if the performances and characterisations weren’t on point and they are, brilliantly so. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is wonderful throughout, being simultaneously funny, capable of some powerful dramatic heft and leaving the audience in knots as to how to react to some of her behaviour.
In lesser hands, a character like this could have been incredibly unsympathetic, but Ramakrishnan’s portrayal is wonderful and has you caring for her even when her decisions are not for the best.
Looking at it closely, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen a million times before, but in choosing to focus on a majority of female characters, played by actresses of colour who are seldom the focus of such a middle class show with scripts that are increasingly funny and poignant, Never Have I Ever isn’t just one of the very best teen shows that Netflix has produced, it may very well be the best series Mindy Kaling has worked on to date.
Never Have I Ever is available to stream on Netflix now.