This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
I don’t purport to know what it is like to be a teenager today.
Generally speaking, youths terrify me. What with their TikToks, their technological savvy, their almost menacing confidence, their looking at age 16 what I looked like at 27, their stopping climate change and solving murders in between party-drug raves and threesomes. I don’t know. All my knowledge about modern teens comes from Riverdale, Euphoria, and reading about Greta Thunberg.
That’s why I’m especially grateful that Never Have I Ever, the delightful new Netflix series, exists.
Again, I have no basis for fact-checking actual teendom, but this one seems to be more real about it. Well, not, like, real real. Real in the way that a zippily written and sunnily shot Netflix comedy refracts reality into enjoyable, digestible 30-minute installments that are narrated by tennis great John McEnroe. (An actual thing that happens in this show!)
In fact, I suspect that Never Have I Ever knows this about itself, that it is setting out to rein in the lunacy of pop culture’s fictional teens and, in a meta way, present a somewhat more grounded depiction of high-school life—or, at least, the life of one insecure Indian-American high-school girl. A particularly inspired bit has a character entranced in a binge of Riverdale, fascinated and aghast at the notion that group showers and investigating murders appear to be the preoccupations of modern teens.
No, in fact it seems that the preoccupations of modern teens seem to be what they’ve always been, just filtered through the lens—Instagram or otherwise—of a new generation: being cool, having sex, securing the right future, the right friends, the right boyfriend, coming out, coming into your own, and learning that the things about you that make you unique are the best things about you, not the worst.
The best thing about Never Have I Ever is that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Those wheels have been spinning down the same road forever. I rode down it. You did. Our parents did. Today’s youths are, too. Never Have I Ever portrays that in a way that is at once comforting and illuminating, relatable while revealing something very specific about one girl’s experience.
It’s wonderful. It’s my favorite season of TV that’s premiered on Netflix so far this year. Not sold yet? I present as evidence: The above photo.
At its heart, Never Have I Ever is a show about grief. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, the series stars 18-year-old newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who beat out 15,000 other hopefuls, as Devi Vishwakumar. A high-achieving wunderkind, Devi endured a horrible end to her freshman year of high school. Her father died of a heart attack during an orchestra concert, and she developed psychosomatic paralysis in the aftermath.
But miracles happen, in this case in the form of the school’s resident hottie, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnett), as iconic a 29-year-old playing a chiseled-from-stone muscular teen hunk as they come. (Once again, see above!)
It’s while craning to try to gawk at him from across a parking lot that Devi is moved to rise out of her wheelchair and be cured. And it’s while trying to forcefully inject herself into his life the entire next school year, under the assumption that being accepted by him will raise her social capital, that she’s consequentially driven to deal with the actual grief she’s been shouldering.
The heaviness and borderline offensiveness of that plot description—dad dies and girl is rescued by hot guy’s abs?—makes it seem like Kaling and Fisher were writing jokes with sticks of dynamite in their hands. This is a comedy?! There’s a modicum of irreverence here, but that danger, and the care with which they tiptoe around it, is exactly what makes Never Have I Ever so recognizable.
It’s outrageous enough to present itself as a diversion, but grounded in a world that feels so viscerally like your own—if a little glossier, a little goofier, and with a little more of a wink. If you’re familiar with Kaling’s other work with The Mindy Project, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Late Night, you can practically hear her voice through Devi’s dialogue. It’s a voice that’s escapist, but pulsing with a heart that we can all empathize with.
There’s so much to dissect: the way Devi’s Indian culture is represented but not fetishized, the refreshing portrayal of Devi as a nerd but not a wallflower, the way in which sexuality is considered and depicted, how real or not real it is. But the biggest point to make is just how pleasurable it is to watch. With everything going on today, that’s all I’d really need to know.