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!”
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.
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.