Saturday, May 02, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever is a show so good, the protagonist can tell a Jewish teenager she wishes he was killed by the Nazis and still be relatable.

The protagonist is Devi Vishwakuma; the line is delivered to her academic arch-rival Ben Gross. It is not deserved -- Ben is certainly a jerk (though he evolves as the season progresses, and honestly Devi isn't really any better than he is), but not anywhere close to where it would be even remotely acceptable to wish genocide upon him. There's nothing cathartic about it, no "well that might have been a bit much, but ...." Devi just said something terrible, hurtful, offensive, and self-destructive. And yet, she's still relatable.

This is a very hard feat to manage. Television is still reckoning with its era of the anti-hero, and after an array of male leads who were meant to be protagonists even as they constantly made terrible and callous choices (e.g.: Mad Men, The Sopranos), the latest trend seems to be female anti-heroes who are by no means one-dimensional villains but certainly mistreat friends and evade responsibilities with seemingly cavalier abandon (e.g.: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Killing Eve),  These shows are interesting because they explore personalities and inner conflicts that other shows don't. But it's supremely difficult to keep the audience onboard with a main character who just makes relentlessly bad and unlikable choices. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- and to be clear, I loved Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- really wavered while walking this line. Never Have I Ever manages it better than maybe any show I've ever seen.

At the show's opening, Devi is returning to high school a year after her father suddenly died at her orchestra concert, and all she wants is for this year to be better than last. If Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy that just under the surface is an exploration of mental illness, Never Have I Ever is a comedy that just under the surface is an exploration of grief. Devi, played outstandingly by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in her first role, is clearly still traumatized by her father's passing. And that trauma manifests mostly by her being very, very angry. Devi is trying to suppress her emotions, but she often lashes out -- sometimes to real stimuli, yet often way out of proportion to what is remotely reasonable. Breaking a window with her textbook upon finding out that her best friend has a boyfriend she never told her about, for example. Or responding to a bit of smug condescension by her bitter rival by announcing she wished he had been exterminated, for another.

Ramakrishnan deserves a ton of credit for immediately establishing Devi so that this anger feels authentic -- it isn't drama for drama's sake, and it isn't one-note either. It's how this teenager would be responding to this trauma she's trying to work through (or avoid working through, as the case may be). That she's a teenager certainly helps: she doesn't have to always make smart or likable choices. She's a teenager! They screw up -- usually under far less emotionally taxing circumstances than these. Devi, it is alluded to, was by no means a perfect child before her dad died. She was stubborn and headstrong and a bit too invested in being the highest achiever in her grade. But in the end, she's a regular kid with regular teenage struggles and stresses who just took one emotional punch too many, and now is in a spiral. And that is certainly relatable.

Devi is such a strong lead character that I haven't even gotten into the superb supporting cast that surrounds her, virtually all of whom feel like fully-realized and lived-in characters. These include the aforementioned arch-rival, her two best friends, the popular boy whose the object of Devi's affections, and her older cousin with an American boyfriend and an impending arranged marriage (it's not really a love triangle, she explains, "It's more of a line with a dot if you're really going to graph it."). The most important is Devi's mother, who is a strict immigrant parent insisting on nothing short of the Ivy League and no dating until Devi is in her twenties. If these sound like pretty standard rom-com archetypes, they are -- which makes it all the more impressive how the show gives them each a fresh spin. I could quibble with some character choices around the edges, but they're really not worth the time. The show works, and it works well.

Oh, and John McEnroe is surprisingly strong as the narrative (yes, there's a reason for it, and yes, it makes at least enough sense to justify the conceit).

Should you PlagueWatch it? Definitely. Jill and I binged all ten episodes in one night. Never Have I Ever is very, very good.

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