The trials and tribulations of the young have long been a popular topic in fiction, and for good reason. Our teens and early 20s are rife with rites of passage, heightened emotion, and endless opportunity for drama; it’s fraught territory relatable to both those working through those years currently and those for whom it’s all memory, sharp, and sentimental. Such stories, when well-told, will always stand out, but it takes quite a lot besides quality to make a coming-of-age story feel fresh or new. It demands a unique perspective, a lot of empathy and frankness, and a willingness to wander to the edges of such well-trodden territory. With “Never Have I Ever,” Mindy Kaling does just that, and she does it with the help of John McEnroe. It also requires a hell of a lead, and in an astonishing debut, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan checks that box, too.
Created by Kaling and Lang Fisher (also of “The Mindy Project”) and inspired by Kaling’s own adolescence, “Never Have I Ever” hits a lot of the beats you expect, both from this genre and from Kaling. There are first kisses, best friends, and school-adjacent humiliations; there are moments of self-discovery, screaming matches, and hard-learned lessons. And because it’s Kaling, there’s both masterful use of and commentary on the tropes of the romantic comedy (here specifically the teen rom-com): the characters, and the young women in particular, often develop a wicked case of the heart-eyes. But alongside that familiarity run several potent currents of originality. It’s the story of Devi, a first-generation Indian-American teenager (Ramakrishnan) who lost the use of her legs after the unexpected death of her father (“Heroes” alum Sendhil Ramamurthy), an ailment presumably psychological in nature. Now walking again—a development that arose when she stood up to gawk at high school god Paxton (Darren Barnet)—she’s got to go back to school, and her considerable focus is directed not on dealing with her grief or nurturing her relationship with her tough mother (Poorna Jagannathan of “The Night Of”) and doesn’t-know-she’s-hot cousin (Richa Moorjani), nor her academic rivalry with the wealthy Ben (Jaren Lewison), but on finding a way to make herself and best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (former Legend of Tomorrow Ramona Young) cool. And cool people have boyfriends, so that’s the key, right?
The thing that’s most impressive about “Never Have I Ever,” particularly after the early introductory episodes, is that it absolutely matches Devi’s intensity of focus—and since it’s narrated by McEnroe, the narration matches it as well. (It’s an inspired bit of business for reasons I won’t spoil here, but long before that revelation, it makes perfect, off-kilter sense. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Kaling and Fisher first had this idea.) Yet the show never, ever forgets what Devi spends so much time trying to ignore: the death of her father and the mountains of unresolved issues surrounding that loss. This is a sitcom, and Devi gets into plenty of sitcom-ish hijinks—a stare-down with a coyote comes to mind—but while the protagonist may be unaware of what’s prompting her to wind up in these wild, fraught situations, the show always remembers. That makes this series a comedy that’s also an incredible exploration of grief. It’s not the first comedy to manage that feat, but it’s a hell of a peak to climb, and the air up there is rarified.
None of that would be possible without Ramakrishnan, a young actor who responded to an open call from Kaling to win the part without so much as a single credit on her resumé. (Like Devi, she’s an over-achiever.) Few debut performances have ever matched her assurance and empathy; Ramakrishnan delivers Kaling and Fisher’s most barbed or demented punchlines with such natural grace that not one of them comes close to puncturing reality; she is wholly human, flawed and fragile, throughout, even when the jokes are savage (and they often are). Nor does the more rich emotional territory ever feel forced. Ramakrishnan’s turn rivals performances like Michaela Watkins in “Casual” and Christina Applegate in “Dead to Me” in her ability to knit the tragic and highly comic together in one potent punch. If she were the only good thing about this show, it would still be a must-watch.
But she’s not alone. The cast is uniformly strong, with Jagannathan, Lewison, Rodriguez, Young, and Niecy Nash (as Devi’s long-suffering therapist) as particular standouts; Rodriguez and Young have the especially difficult task of anchoring Devi’s wilder swings while still working through some heightened comedic moments of their own. They’re all also well-served by the editing: Scenes last just a beat or two longer than you think they might, and some of the best beats emerge from the dropping of forced smile, the flicker of pain unseen by others, the quiet after a slammed door. Devi’s repressed trauma is also often addressed in quick cuts back to either the night of her father’s death or specific memories spent with him, and the show’s editors and directors manage to find a thoughtful vocabulary for these, changing with Devi’s emotional state.
Like both “The Mindy Project” and some of Kaling’s episodes of “The Office,” "Never Have I Ever" is equally thoughtful about Devi’s relationship to her culture and religion. Like those shows, it’s also incredibly watchable, something especially impressive given the fraught subject matter. And like both, it benefits from some inspired guest casting (seriously, just trust me on the McEnroe thing, it is a straight-up brilliant choice.) “Never Have I Ever” is not Mindy Kaling’s funniest comedy, but it is perhaps her most honest. In short, it is terrific.
All of season one screened for review. "Never Have I Ever" premieres on Netflix on April 27.