LONDON: Netflix has enjoyed plenty of success with high school-based, coming-of-age stories in recent years, from the controversial and dark “13 Reasons Why” to the more light-hearted “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” and risk-taking US/UK hybrid “Sex Education.” While “Never Have I Ever” initially looks like another fairly standard addition to the pantheon, and could struggle to land with certain demographics, the fact that actress, writer and comedian Mindy Kaling is one of the show’s creators make it worth a longer look. Based in part on Kaling’s own experiences growing up in Massachusetts, the show follows 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she navigates high school life in California. After her dad dies of a heart attack, Devi temporarily loses the use of her legs, and the series picks up her story as the (now walking again) sophomore starts a new school year.
Kaling’s whip-smart humor (showcased so well in 2019’s excellent “Late Night”) shines through, with the Vishwakumar family setup portrayed as a complex, humorous and still-grieving mixing pot of US and Indian culture. There’s also some big-name talent woven into the mix, with John McEnroe and Andy Samberg appearing as narrators — something that has the potential to be far-fetched and trite, but actually provides a sweet counterbalance to some of the high-school sniping.
Typically for this current wave of smart-teen shows, there are love triangles and convoluted set pieces that force the story forward. Issues of sexuality, cultural identity and familial obligation are woven into the season-long arc in a way that has worked well for Netflix in the past, and there’s no sign of significant deviation from the tried-and-tested formula.
Ramakrishnan makes for a pleasant lead, and is ably supported by a cast of characters that, for the most part, have more than one note to them. But it’s the lower-profile, quieter moments, which delve into topics including loneliness, grief and academic pressure, that allow “Never Have I Ever” to elevate itself above many of its contemporaries.