Bingeworthy? “Never Have I Ever” figured Mindy Kaling had a high school sitcom in her

You’d expect Mindy Kaling’s take on a teens-on-the-make sitcom to be edgy — kids and teachers lobbing profanity back and forth across the net, an Indian-American teen daring to call her mother a “bitch” in mid-tantrum, a 15 year-old brazenly propositioning the hottest guy in school.

And you’d expect it to be more diverse than your typical sitcom. Her (and “Mindy Project” co-creator Lang Fisher) version of Sherman Oaks, California is almost WASP free. It’s a sea of Asian and Hispanic kids, African American authority figures (a principal, a shrink) with a Jewish nemesis and a too-woke-for-words Jewish teacher for good measure.

Today’s history project, “What if Anne Frank had a cell phone?”

With Kaling involved, if you thought it would be funnier than “Never Have I Ever” turns out to be, you wouldn’t be alone. The dollops of “sweet” and rare laughs are especially hard to come by in the first few episodes.

As one character is in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality, the phrase “It gets better” comes to mind. But not much. Not enough.

It’s about 15 year-old Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is set up to be “the smart Asian kid” but one with a terrible temper. If only we saw more of it.

Devi’s got a reason to be cranky. She lost her dad at last year’s spring orchestra concert (she plays the harp), lost her own ability to walk for a couple of months after that, perhaps due to the shock.

And, curse of curses in teen rom-com life, she’s still a virgin.

Starting the new term, she’s no longer “FDR” (wheelchair bound) and she declares “Sophomore year is going to be OUR year” to drama dork pal Eleanor (Ramona Young) and tech-nerd Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez). Ever seen a high school rom-com that DIDN’T use that line?

Devi takes a lot of chewing-out from her dermatologist mom (Poorna Jagannathan), copes with the too-gorgeous college cousin Kamala finishing up her Phd and living with them (Richa Moorjani), and occasionally sees her dead dad, and not just in flashbacks.

At school, she renews her war with smart jerk/rival Ben (Jaren Lewison, amusingly annoying) and crushes on the school dreamboat, the hopelessly cut Paxton Hall-Yoshiba (Darren Barnet). After school is when she sometimes sees her shrink (Niecy Nash).

And narrating her story, for reasons the series gets into, is tantrum-tossing tennis great John McEnroe. Little bursts of profanity don’t change the “Wonder Years” cloying nature of the voice-over. Devi has her moments of temper, which Mr. Mac-Obvious labels, “THAT’s how we hotheads boil over.”

It makes little chronological sense that anybody in that house would have ever been into John McEnroe, whose tennis career wound down in the early ’90s. Her family might have come to America in 2001, with Devi born a few years later. But her dad doesn’t look 60 or even 50, so how’s that McEnroe connection work?

Mac is there when Devi’s full-court-press on Paxton bears fruit in “Never Have I Ever…had sex with Paxton Hall-Yoshida.” That’s how the episodes are titled.

“Well, this was certainly not the walk of shame she was hoping for.”

The jokes are of the “Is that a skirt, or a headband?” “You look like an Asian Kardashian!” variety — tired, horny teenager takes. Those comparing “Never” to the John Hughes classics of the ’80s are missing the mark by several years. This is closer to “American Pie” — some cuteness, a lot of (lite) crude, a little heart here and there — always heavy on the hormones.

All Devi wants to be is a “normal teenager.”

“Normal teenagers wind up in prison, or worse — working at Jersey Mike’s!”

Hilarious.

Cousin Kamala’s story includes efforts to arrange a marriage back in India while hiding a boyfriend in the States (“Big Bang Theory” much?), and there are story lines about a “spirit animal” Devi thinks is her dad and the awakening sexual preferences in one of her friends.

The casting is, frankly, bland. Brag about the talent hunt and seeing thousands of faces if you want, but when your lead is charisma-starved and prone to rushing her lines, that sets the tone for the rest of the cast. She looks her age, which gives an underage jolt to her assertive bursts of brazenness.

The supporting players can’t be so interesting, natural or funny that they show her up, so her BFFs, toy boy and even rival collectively whisper “Not a breakout star in the lot.”

Even Niecy Nash is less interesting than normal, unable to summon up any dudgeon when Devi declares to her shrink that “I’m ready to BONE.”

“If you were ready to bone, you would use the phrase ‘ready to bone.'”

As I say, the show starts to find its sentimental footing by episodes three and four. But there’s little traction with this writing and this cast. Compare “Never Have I Ever” to the sparkling and sometimes raunchy teen comedy movies Netflix makes, “The Kissing Booth,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved” before, to or other Netflix sitcoms. This falls closer to the formulaic “One Day at a Time” reboot than “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Even the target audience could catch on that this isn’t destination streaming. It’s filler with a hint of spice to it — five hours worth.

Whatever the thin charms of the characters or glories of putting characters on the screen that a lot of different American kids can see and say, “Hey, she/he looks like me,” you’d have to be a pretty undiscriminating kid to not wish “looks like me” was a lot funnier.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: TV-14, teen drinking, sex talk, profanity

Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Darren Barnet, Lee Rodriguez, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan, Ramona Young, Jaren Lewison, and the voice of John McEnroe.

Credits: Created by Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling.  A Netflix original series.

Running time:  10 episodes @ :30 each.

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5 Responses to Bingeworthy? “Never Have I Ever” figured Mindy Kaling had a high school sitcom in her

  1. M says:

    Hi, I just wanted to address one of the points you made in your review, about how Devi’s father would not have been able to appreciate John McEnroe. Sports television does, in fact, exist in India, and tennis has been a very popular sport to watch there for decades. My mother would religiously watch all four Grand Slams growing up in the 80s in India and remembers her favorites, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, fondly. Devi’s father being a superfan of John McEnroe in his youth, carrying over to his adulthood, is something intimately relatable to second-generation Indian viewers.
    Also, I’m very confused by your criticism that “She looks her age, which gives an underage jolt to her assertive bursts of brazenness.” For me, her brazenness was grounded in bravado and a rush to deflect away from her grief and thus was very much her age. However, even if her statements felt too bold, the complaint here should not be centered on the fact that the actress was the proper age and instead should be that the lines weren’t suitable for any character of that age.
    I don’t agree with most of the points you’ve made, but there’s only one more that I feel the compulsion to refute. You say at the end that “you’d have to be a pretty undiscriminating kid to not wish “looks like me” was a lot funnier.” I watched this show with a (virtual) group of 2nd generation South Asian friends. Between all of us, we have different opinions on the direct connection and relatableness of the show, and some of us did not enjoy Devi’s bursts of poor decision-making. However, “looks like me” is incredibly compelling. I think we all still would have swallowed the show down even if it was poorly made or a lot less compelling, because we’ve been starved for representation like this on screen. It felt validating to us to see elements and pieces of our life at home on screen, and it wasn’t really about “funny” so much as it was about being seen. That it was funny and relatable to us was simply a fantastic extra perk.

    • Most of your complaints are subjective, and while I cite examples to make my case and you cite your predispositions, whatever.
      But you start straight off by missing my McEnroe point entirely.
      The father was dead at 45. That means he was born AFTER McEnroe started his quick fade from tennis relevance and the TV coverage that came with that.
      Father and daughter are unlikely to have bonded over a player who was all but retired by the time Dad was ten.
      This has nothing to do with when India got TV and everything to do with the fact Mac wasn’t on it as a player in the timeframe necessary.

  2. zat says:

    What got me interested in this show was that McEnroe as a narrator and commentator thing. It doesn’t make any sense, yes, but that made it interesting for me as an adult viewer. Maybe that has also something to do with representation. I wouldn’t watch a high school sitcom, normally. With McEnroe this show seemed to have an interesting quirky Wes Anderson vibe.
    Turns out it has, but not very much of it. It’s something different when quirky Wes Anderson makes a movie with mass appeal. This is rather a show with a lot of mass appeal and “a hint of spice on it”, as you wrote.
    This is fluffy stuff. The dialogues seem to be written for a cartoon series, with a gag every 20 seconds. Would this be better a cartoon series? I suspect for a cartoon the dialogues would work better, but the show also wants to have a heart and to address grief. But that comes into the foreground only at the end when the show tries to be more grounded.
    I still watched it through, and I do credit the lead, who played Devi, and the actor who played her mother. They did get the balance between speaking cartoon dialogues and playing real emotions.
    Everything looks good in beautiful Californian light. Billy Wilder said: ‘If you have something important to say, wrap it in chocolate’. This show has tons of chocolate and sugar and tries desperately to find something important to wrap. Of course the kids have problems. Of course it’s being gay and being neglected by your parents. They had a hard time finding something else, so they used the neglecting parents theme even twice.
    The bereavement at the end was a welcome change. It was ok, but I have seen much better (eg the movie “In America” by Jim Sheridan.
    But here is also where I have the biggest concerns. Devi’s mother complained that Devi, because of her grief, had turned into a ‘fake character’, pissing off even her best friends. The solution was that Devi confronted her grief–and gets back to normal. But that ‘fake character’ was the only thing that was interesting in this show. What would a second season be about? Even more of the neglecting parents theme? They can’t possibly give John McEnroe the new leading role.

  3. Frank Martin says:

    You do realize this review is the only negative review (out of 45) on rotten tomatoes.
    “It’s filler with a hint of spice to it — five hours worth.” – Pretty harsh

    • Go to Metacritic.com. More established reviewers. RT skews less experienced, even before they more than doubled the number of approved critics last year to diversity their ranks. I don’t drink the Kaling Koolaid. Just a vulgarian, and the show lays that out there.

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