Trust Me: Never Have I Ever Is the Nerdy Teen's Answer to Gossip Girl
Finally, representation for kids who watched Jeopardy! and spent weekends prepping for the SAT.
As a teenager, I watched (and re-watched) Marissa Cooper OD in Tijuana, Blair Waldorf lose her virginity in the back of a limo, and Peyton Sawyer and Brooke Davis get abducted on prom night by a stalker posing as Peyton’s half-brother (!). I lived for the drama. But here’s the truth: I wasn’t doing drugs or having sex or enticing would-be kidnappers in high school. The biggest dramatic turn in my young adult life was probably when a girl in my ACT session shook her leg (and thus the room!) throughout the duration of the test, or maybe when Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody broke up … Not to say that anyone was tuning into Gossip Girl for its realism, but these high school storylines were so foreign to me, I might as well have been watching a documentary about the Japanese stock market (where the brokers all wear designer headbands, of course).
Nearly a decade post-high school, teen TV is a little less palatable for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gladly watch Cole Sprouse wear a dumb hat and say words like “jingle jangle” with the earnestness of a UN ambassador, but it’s more challenging for me to sit back and accept the plausibility of a 27-year-old high schooler, or resist an eye roll over (ANOTHER!) fake brother storyline …
Enter: Never Have I Ever — a teen comedy starring … teens (or at least actors who resemble them). And the storylines are … actually relatable? Mindy Kaling’s latest revolves around Devi (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an academic-minded Indian-American teen who recently lost her father. Devi is smart and funny, as are her best friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), but due to her preoccupation with academics, she and the members of her circle are outcasts, dubbed “The UN” (“unfuckable nerds”) by cruel classmates.
The series opens with Devi praying to the Hindu deities, issuing a request not unlike something 15-year-old me would write in my diary: “I’d like to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs. I’m not going to do them, I’d just like the opportunity to say, ‘No cocaine for me, thanks. I’m good.’” I would’ve killed to be invited to one of the storied ragers that was shut down by the police in my small town — as for the shotgunning of PBRs and bathroom quickies? Pass.
“For all of us in the writers’ room, particularly those of us who were the children of immigrants, which comprised most of my staff, it was about sharing those stories of feeling ‘other,’” Kaling told The New York Times of the loosely autobiographical series. Instead of casting a “28-year-old, gorgeous Bollywood star” in the show’s main role, Kaling sought to find someone more representative of herself as a teen. “I really loved that she was Tamil, which I am also,” she said of Ramakrishnan, who’d recently graduated high school when she landed the role of Devi. “Also, I think about colorism a lot, and I liked that she wasn’t like this red-haired, green-eyed, pale-skinned Indian girl. I liked that she looked a little bit more like someone that would be in my family.”
For a former high school nerd, Devi’s conflicts are incredibly familiar. She worries about getting into an Ivy League school, catching the attention of her crush, and (of course) being popular.
I know what you’re thinking. There’s a reason people yearn for the over-the-top drama of Riverdale or One Tree Hill and obsess over the shows’ actor-cum-model stars. Fantasy is more compelling than reality. And while that may (almost always) ring true, Never Have I Ever has something its soapy counterparts are often lacking: Heart.
When you reach the end of the series, it’s not the quintessentially “teen” elements of the show that stick with you. Yes, Devi’s an overachieving sophomore who dreams about being with the most popular boy in school, but she’s also a young person coming to terms with her father’s death and struggling to communicate with her strict mother in their new parental dynamic. On top of it all, she’s wrestling with her cultural identity (a confrontation that culminates at a Ganesh Puja ceremony).
Despite being set in the modern day (a decision Kaling told NYT she made in order to appeal to “kids now”), Never Have I Ever is based in a sort of universal nostalgia. Even the Serena van der Woodsens and Veronica Lodges of the world have felt some form of the otherness Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher speak to.
But beyond the importance of a teen-targeted show that celebrates diversity, nerdiness, and the intricacies of grief, Never Have I Ever is just fun. Kaling’s trademark wit is felt on every page of the script. It’s a show that offers me exactly what I’ve been seeking since quarantine began: A reason to smile. Eat your heart out, Blair Waldorf.