Back in April 2019, actress and director Mindy Kaling put out an open casting call on Instagram: “Wanted: three South Asian women, varying in age, two with Indian accents, for a new show.” About a year later, her coming-of-age teen dramedy Never Have I Ever debuted on Netflix. It follows the life of Devi Vishwakumar, an outspoken high-school sophomore who, following a traumatic freshman year, has made it her mission to become popular. Ranging from hilarious to painfully cringeworthy, Never Have I Ever is filled with moments you’d expect in any teen sitcom: Devi sneaks out to parties, tries to find a boyfriend, and deals with conflicts between friends. What’s different is its focus on an ethnic reality rarely displayed on screen: the Indian-American experience.
The series opens with Devi praying in front of her home Hindu shrine at the start of sophomore year. She begs the gods to be invited to a party with alcohol and drugs (“not to do them, just to have the opportunity to turn them down”), and to help thin out her arm hair (“I know it’s an Indian thing but they look like the floor of a barber shop!”) Over the course of ten episodes, Devi—alongside her two best friends, a multiracial crew nicknamed the “UN” by Devi’s Jewish nemesis—tries to win over the hottest guy in school while coping with the grief of losing her father. She struggles to connect with her strict dermatologist mother, Nalini, and loses her patience with her annoyingly perfect cousin Kamala, a graduate student visiting from India and preparing for an arranged marriage back home.
In some ways, Devi’s character refreshingly complicates the standard myth of Indian Americans as passive overachievers, the Model Minority. Devi is nerdy and ranked at the top of her class, but she is hardly quiet or submissive. She makes TikToks with her friends, and stresses about both getting into Princeton and getting laid. She has attitude.
The show also alerts us to a key tension faced by many young Indian Americans. On one hand, there’s the more conservative Indian culture of their parents; on the other, the consumerist, liberal America that often makes them uneasy, and isn’t always welcoming. In one scene, Devi feels like she can’t fully connect with her heritage at the community’s celebration of Ganesh Puja, a Hindu festival (the show actually depicts Durga Puja). In another, Devi asks a white college advisor for advice. He feeds her a familiar spiel: elite colleges “don’t want another Indian try-hard with a padded resume.” She needs to find a “story” that makes her different. It’s an exasperating, impossible position, as Devi later understandably exclaims: “Some old loser was telling me that I was too Indian. And some other people think I’m not Indian enough. But honestly, all I want to do is eat a donut.”