Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ Is the Best Teen Show on TV Right Now
With all due respect to the horny, rich, ass-eating teens of “Gossip Girl,” the high-octane, heartfelt emotions exploding from Netflix’s sweet teen series deserve your attention.
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TV’s Nice, Relatable Teens vs. the Sexy, Terrifying Ones
It’s a tricky feat to be as sweet but also as smart and observant as Netflix’s Never Have I Ever.
That’s important praise because of the fact that it actually feels like you’re watching teenagers and their bubble-boiling lava field of emotions, anxieties, and mistakes unfold on screen. And it’s done without losing the television filter—wittier dialogue than anyone would ever actually speak, slightly exaggerated circumstances—that makes watching TV, well, fun.
It’s kind of funny that the second season of Never Have I Ever came out last weekend amidst what seems to be Gossip Girl reboot mania. The two series are like polar opposites of the teen TV spectrum.
There’s always been pop-culture tension between teen soap provocateurs like Gossip Girl—and The OC, Dawson’s Creek, and Beverly Hills: 90210 before it—and the more grounded fare, sometimes dismissed as juvenile, like Never Have I Ever.
The series, from Mindy Kaling, centers around Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first-generation Indian American high school student grappling with the cultural tension between the discipline of her life at home—one rocked by the sudden death of her father—and the intoxicating barbarity with which the rest of her classmates seem to charge through life: hormones first, inhibitions seemingly never.
Devi struggles through insecurities about her self-worth, her culture, her sexual experience, and her mental health, along the way blowing up relationships with her oldest friends, her newest friends, her mother, and her two boyfriends. Yes, Never Have I Ever doesn’t shy away from the hallmarks of the teen soap: At one point, Devi is in a love triangle, and it is messy.
(You try to decide between an intellectual equal who may be your perfect match and walking washboard abs with a jawline, played by Paxton Hall-Yoshida, when the option is presented to you.)
But no matter how heightened the plot twists or snappy the dialogue, Never Have I Ever never stops feeling real or relatable.
Real and relatable are interesting concepts when it comes to teen series. While Never Have I Ever doesn’t shy away from the realities of partying, sexually active teens, it’s hardly the pearl clutcher that’s become the de facto depiction of Gen Z on TV in the likes of Riverdale, Euphoria, Genera+ion, or, now, the Gossip Girl reboot.
Is it more realistic to portray teenagers as having narcotic-fueled orgies in between sneaking into clubs, lying about their ages on sex apps, and throwing raves so gritty and depraved you’d think you accidentally turned on a Tarantino movie? Or is the sunny universe of Never Have I Ever—or, in a similar vibe, Netflix’s Sex Education—a more informative reflection of the times?
As if the youths weren’t already terrifying enough, the impossibility to discern an accurate picture through pop culture makes them all the more intimidating.
Take as case studies two standout LGBT-themed scenes that aired this week. Never Have I Ever had one of the most heartwarming, still hilarious gay storylines in an episode in which Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) is afraid to introduce her girlfriend to her mother, not because her mother isn’t accepting, but because she’s become such an ally that Fabiola finds it embarrassing. Her greatest fear: Her mother will invite her girlfriend over to watch Carol.
The excessive acceptance is genuinely funny. For a charity relay race, Fabiola’s mom gives her team the name “The Jodie Fasters.” (!!!) What’s remarkable about this storyline is that no one is the villain here. Fabiola’s worries are, while perhaps unfair, completely age-appropriate for a self-conscious teenager. And her mother obviously could not be doing more of the right thing, even if it is a bit much.
A running through line of the season is Fabiola’s frustration with understanding how she fits into a queer identity. She assumed that once she came out, she would suddenly know herself and everything would be great and easy. It’s a nuanced and rarely explored thread of the young LGBT experience. The whole arc is beautiful.
Then there’s Gossip Girl, in which three queer men, all sexually frustrated with their feelings for each other, have a dramatic encounter while fully naked in a Manhattan bath house. There is kissing. There is arguing. There is a demand to know why you won’t just fuck me already. There are butts. Iconic scene, all around.
Which of these two storylines is more authentic to the teenage queer experience? I know my answer. Would you be shocked to learn it doesn’t involve walking out with my eight abs and bare ass into a steam room to dare my also-naked teacher to have sex with me after making out with my best friend?
There is undeniable fun to be had with a series like Gossip Girl, and I’ve written about how shrewdly it chronicles the pressures of coming to terms with a young person’s identity in the age of social media, privilege, and shame. But I’ve always found something like Never Have I Ever, which never loses its heartfelt empathy for its characters, not just to be fun, but rewarding, too.
One particular scene in season two absolutely wrecked me. It made me feel seen and validated now as an adult, but, somehow, also retroactively as the scared, confused, hurting teenager I was all those years ago.
Devi is speaking to her therapist, played by Niecy Nash. She is in tears, horrified by the realization that, given the ways in which she sabotaged so many areas of her life, she may be as crazy as the bullies say. The therapist shuts that down immediately.
“Devi, you feel a lot,” she says. “Which means sometimes you’re gonna hurt a lot. But it also means you’re going to live a life that is emotionally rich and really beautiful.”
Not me having a profound emotional breakthrough while bingeing a teen soap on a Sunday afternoon.
But that’s the beauty of a show like Never Have I Ever. It’s why I hope its brand of sincerity and emotional earnestness never becomes overshadowed by the (admittedly addicting) shock and sensationalism of so many other teen series. In fact, I think it may be the best teen show on TV.