Profound Grief Through Teen Eyes in Never Have I Ever
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
If you were to only watch the trailer to Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix original show Never Have I Ever, you would probably come away with the impression that it is a vacuous teen comedy about a girl and her friends who are trying to get laid by popular boys before the end of their sophomore year of high school. To be honest, I only tuned in because I saw so much chatter about it amongst fellow Young Adult writers on Twitter that I felt the pressure to be “in” on the latest YA trend. But after I grimaced at the trailer and hit play, the show took me completely by surprise, delivering a cohesion of comedy and emotional depth most adult dramas aim for and fail to reach. The trailer, a marketing tool primed to lure in teen viewers with the promise of sexual content, hardly in any way reflects the actual content or themes of the story. Never have I ever experienced such a bait and switch from TV trailer to TV show reality.
Never Have I Ever is primarily the story of Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first generation Indian American teen girl in suburban Los Angeles who loses her father to a heart attack at a school concert at the end of her freshman year. Because of the public nature of her father’s death, all her peers know what happened, and she is unable to grieve the loss privately. Wanting nothing more than to continue with life as normal, however, Devi refuses to deal with her grief, stuffing it deep inside to the point where she suffers from a psychosomatic paralysis that lasts until the opening of her sophomore year. What snaps her out of her paralysis? She has a reason to stand up, which is to be able to better see a boy she has a crush on: Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). Miraculously cured, she decides that sophomore year is going to be the year that she and her two best friends will break out of their nerd bubble and become cool—starting with landing boyfriends. And Devi becomes determined to lose her virginity to Paxton, the most popular boy in school.What you will find in Never Have I Ever is a surprisingly profound look at grief through the eyes of teenagers.
If you’re reading carefully, you may notice that this story set-up is strange—mixed-genre strange. While containing many of the major touchpoints of a classic YA romcom (a deal with friends to land hot dates, a plan to get laid, fixation on the most popular boy in school, “unequal” pairing of nerd and jock), it’s also set up like a classic and tragic drama. Devi’s loss of her father in the first episode, her subsequent paralysis, her belief that she’s healed (because she can suddenly walk again), and her sudden fixation on wanting to get laid strike a dissonant chord with the knowledge the viewer holds that this girl is definitely not well. She may be healed in body, but she is not healed in mind or spirit. And that’s part of what keeps you watching: Devi is an explosion waiting to happen.
Which is maybe why the production team enlisted John McEnroe to narrate the story—as himself. That’s right. The bad boy of tennis with the famously explosive temper acts as a somewhat deadpan and often humorous narrator of every episode except one and even steps in at the end for a brief cameo. In a show that on the surface seems to promise laughs from teen sexcapades, John McEnroe ends up serving as frequent comic relief to break up scenes of grief and emotional tension. (Have I mentioned this show serves up the unexpected at every turn? Because it does.) Do teens these days even know who John McEnroe is? No matter—he narrates his own introduction just to clear up any possible confusion, and as the narrator of the show, he acts also as Devi’s simmering inner anger.
Good stories reflect reality. And true to real life, just because one person is suffering from something big, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world stops and revolves around them. Devi’s plans to get her bestfriends boyfriends and get with Paxton are one big distraction for her—an abject refusal to deal with or process her grief. But her friends are going through their own issues. One friend comes out as gay and is afraid of her family’s reaction. The other friend’s absent mother comes home just to abandon her daughter yet again. Devi’s longtime rival-turned-friend is an only child who is desperately lonely—his parents give him all the money and “stuff” he could ever want, and no time, love, or affection.
But it’s hard for Devi to see the hurts her friends are dealing with, or to find the emotional bandwidth to help them when she does, because Paxton has become the focus of her drive to keep her own grief at bay. And if she loses sight of Paxton, then all her big feelings about her dad will come crowding in, and she’s not ready for that. Devi’s fixation on losing her virginity is a stage of her grief. She doesn’t really want to have sex with Paxton Hall-Yoshida—what she wants is to push aside her father’s loss. To not think about it. To pretend he didn’t die. To feel other feelings so she doesn’t have to deal with the scariest feelings of them all. Infatuation is a heady, heady drug, and it can numb the worst kind of pain. Even though he dies in episode one, Devi’s father is present throughout the season. He comes to her in visions and flashbacks and remembrances. More than once, Devi thinks she sees him only to realize she’s seeing someone else. Most of all, Devi doesn’t want to have to deal with his loss and her grief because then she’ll have to say goodbye, and so her behavior spirals more and more out of control.
It’s an unfortunately popular thing amongst adult audiences to castigate YA stories for portraying teens as acting too immaturely—for acting, quite simply, too much like teenagers. But adults are not the target audience for YA stories, and teenagers do not (and should not) act like adults. Never Have I Ever does what all good YA stories should: it tells teen experiences through the perspective of the teens themselves, no matter how ludicrous some of the decisions made may seem to adult viewers. Devi’s actions are often selfish, irrational, and over-the-top—they should be; she’s a teenager. The teen years are already some of the most volatile years we spend on this earth. To heap loss and grief and trauma on top of them merely magnifies the difficulties young people feel as they wade through hormonal changes, find their place in the world, experience first loves, and so much more.
What else can I say about Never Have I Ever other than that you should give it a watch, and you should keep the tissues handy. Spoiler alert: despite all the times Devi talks about wanting to have sex, there is no actual sex in the show. What you will find instead is a surprisingly profound look at grief through the eyes of teenagers. It is funny when it needs to be, sadder than you expect it to be, and familiar if you let it be with the remembrance of what it was like to be that age and filled with feelings you didn’t know how to handle. What Never Have I Ever asks of the adult viewer, more than anything, is empathy for our teenage neighbors whose struggle is like ours, but without the wisdom that comes with age.