Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s new Netflix comedy, Never Have I Ever, could have easily been a drama. On paper, “Teenage girl processes her grief after the death of her father” does not exactly sound like a riot. But 18-year-old lead actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s performance sells it. As Devi Vishwakumar, she seamlessly toggles between the furious angst, naive optimism, and unrelenting horniness that tend to go hand in hand with being a teenage girl. Even when Devi is at her worst—and the lows are really pretty ugly—it’s impossible not to laugh with her and, perhaps more importantly, root for her.
But before Never Have I Ever, Ramakrishnan had only appeared in a high school production of Chicago.
Fisher, who co-executive produced The Mindy Project before co-creating Never Have I Ever with Kaling, told The Daily Beast that 15,000 hopefuls responded to their casting call for the series lead. “Most of them were these amazing young women who auditioned in earnest,” Fisher said. “There were also some weirdos who auditioned. I think there was a Jamaican man?”
Given the volume of the response, it might seem surprising that a relative novice landed the role—that is, until you see what she can do.
“She’s a real star; she sells the whole thing,” Fisher said of Ramakrishnan. “You can teach someone to act, but you really can't teach someone to be funny. And we just needed someone who really got a freshness to the role, because this kid has such an attitude and has to be lovable while being selfish.”
And make no mistake: For all her charm, Devi really can be be the worst. As she struggles to process her grief over her father, Mohan’s death, she frequently lashes out at her mother and dismisses her friends. She spends most of her therapy sessions asking her therapist (played to bemused perfection by Niecy Nash) to tell her she’s fuckable—or begging her to secretly buy her a thong.
At first, Kaling and Fisher imagined Devi’s therapist as a pushover—but eventually, they decided to make her one of the few people Devi actually respects. When they recalled Nash’s arc from The Mindy Project, they knew she’d be perfect for the role—and Nash, whose own experience with therapy has proven invaluable, jumped at the opportunity to work with Kaling again.
“I’ve been in therapy probably a little over two years now, right at two years, and it's such a valuable asset,” Nash said as she explained the appeal of the role. “That's number one. But number two, I just feel like this is a story I haven't seen before—through a lens I haven't seen before, at least, and I was happy to be a part of it.”
As she read the scripts, Nash knew she had to come aboard. “You know you’ve tapped into something when you can’t wait to find, ‘Oh what's going to happen next? Is she going to get the guy? What’s gonna happen when she goes back to school? What’s her mother gonna say about that? Oh, this is gonna be a thing!’” she said. “That’s how I knew it was going to be very entertaining. I think people are gonna love this little girl.”
Plus, as a mother of three, Nash immediately recognized mercurial antics.
“If you were a kid, you know what it is,” Nash said. “If you’ve raised three of them—and girls are very different than boys. Every scene is on 10. It's a full-on fire. All of it. So I knew the world very well... You could cry for a whole week just over cutting your bangs. Everything is a thing.”
And according to Nash, you’d never know that this was Ramakrishnan’s first professional gig. She was even able to keep up as Nash improvised some of her lines. (“Mindy knows I'm from the improv world, so if there were some times where some words may have tasted better in my mouth than others, they were absolutely amenable to that,” Nash explained.)
“I thought that our doctor-patient relationship flowed really well,” Nash said. “Just in terms of us being able to listen to each other—even if it slid off-script a little bit we could stay connected.”
As Kaling and Fisher mulled what tone Never Have I Ever would take, they thought back to the teen series they’d devoured as obsessives of the genre.
“We both have seen a lot of shows where you have kind of a nerdy protagonist and they're kind of a wallflower,” Fisher said. “Mindy and I were both nerds, but we were both loud and annoying... We were kind of big, loud nerds who also wanted boyfriends [and] loved to talk about sex—even though we were very far from having it.”
Both Kaling and Fisher lost parents during their youths, which inspired the series’ focus on grief. And Kaling’s experience growing up Indian-American informed Devi’s outlook on her own identity. One of the show’s stand-out episodes takes place during a Hindu prayer celebration called Ganesh Puja—an idea directly inspired by Kaling’s upbringing.
And in a canny twist, tantrum-prone former tennis star John McEnroe narrates the series, providing our window into Devi’s inner life.
“It’s unclear how much he even understood of what he was going to be doing when we first approached him about it,” Fisher said. “I think his kids are big fans of Mindy’s, and maybe his wife, and they told him that he had to do the project because it was going to be cool.”
In the end, though McEnroe had a blast—and offered to do any kind of press the production needed, before the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down press events. “He was really, really fun to work with, and I think he really enjoyed being in this teen show by the end,” Fisher said. “In the beginning, I think he was confused but by the end I think he liked it.”
And it’s not just Devi whose emotions always appear to be at a 10. Her friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are just as exquisitely nerdy and complex as she is; the former is a die-hard theater nerd, while the latter is a robotics whiz who builds a borderline-sentient robot while struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. And Devi’s frenemy, Ben (Jaren Lewison), covers his own inner sorrow by being just as insufferably competitive as she is.
But of course, any teen comedy is only as good as its central heartthrob—and Never Have I Ever’s Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) is one for the age. The swimmer is one year older than Devi, but joins her history class after being held back a year. At first, he seems like your average hottie—but over time, a sweet personality emerges, hinting at hidden depths that remain only partially explored by the end of the season, leaving room for more in Season 2.
“We wanted to make sure that he was a three-dimensional character who has his own wounds and his own insecurities,” Fisher said. “He’s very protective of his sister, and he’s afraid that people think he's dumb.”
“There’s no one who’s just 100 percent confident through and through,” Fisher added. “We wanted him to start out where you look at him from Devi's point of view, but we wanted to make it seem like he has his own issues. And as you get to know him, he has his own struggles and has things that embarrass him.”
Thanks to that careful writing and a host of charismatic performances, Never Have I Ever might be one of the best escapes television has to offer right now. It’s engrossing, full of heart, and funny to boot. And it couldn’t have landed on Netflix at a better time. If nothing else, Fisher said, she hopes it will serve as a “brain vacation” for anyone who needs a break from reality right now. “Especially for young people, like teenagers. I hope that it lets people have some relief from the weirdness that’s happening everywhere.”