It’s the start of sophomore year, and 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar has some prayer/requests for the gods.
“One: I’d like to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs,” she says. “I’m not going to do them. I’d just like the opportunity to say ‘No cocaine for me, thanks, I’m good.’
“Two: I’d LOVE for my arm hair to thin out. I know it’s an Indian thing, but my forearms look like the floor of a friggin’ barber shop.
“Lastly … I’d really, really like a boyfriend. But not some nerd from one of my AP classes. Like a guy from a sports team. He can be dumb, I don’t care …”
That opening scene of executive producer Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix high school comedy series “Never Have I Ever” not only sets the tone for a smart, edgy, funny, sweet, lovely show, it announces the presence of newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as a genuine star who turns in natural and empathetic work as an intelligent, insecure, troubled and absolutely wonderful girl.
Though a series and not a feature, “Never Have I Ever” joins the likes of “Love, Simon” and “Booksmart” as 21st century descendants of the films of John Hughes. Like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink,” these movies and shows depict three-dimensional teenagers who are equal parts sunny optimism and jaded cynicism as they navigate the waters of American high school. We laugh and roll our eyes at some of their more selfish antics. We cringe when things go terribly sideways. And we feel like parental viewing units as these kids hurt and our hearts melt.
You might think Devi would serve as narrator for her journey, but the voice-over guide is one John McEnroe — that’s right, the 1980s tennis star with famous anger management issues. Save for one episode when a certain “SNL” alum takes the reins, McEnroe is the narrator throughout the entire series, for reasons explained fairly early on in the show. It’s a creative choice, a bold choice — but not a great choice, as McEnroe’s flat, shrill delivery is incongruous without really adding anything to the mix.
No matter. “Never Have I Ever” soars in its irreverent yet authentic depictions of an Indian-American girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley; the sometimes heartbreaking conflicts between a traditional mother and her rebellious daughter; the roller-coaster ups and downs among three best friends who are joined at the hip but can be deeply hurtful to each other; and the heart-stopping touchstone moments of teenage romance, where one minute you feel you can fly, and the next you just want to curl up and die.
After Devi’s beloved father died of a heart attack, Devi experienced psychosomatic paralysis and was in a wheelchair for months during her freshman year. She’s now “better,” at least physically, but she regularly sees a therapist (Niecy Nash), who explores Devi’s anger issues and her outwardly blasé attitude about her father’s death. Back on her feet, Devi and her best friends and fellow geeks Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are determined to go to cool parties, dive into life beyond the lab and get boyfriends. “We are smart,” says Fabiola. “Idiots are banging all the time. If they can do it, we can learn how to do it too.”
Jaren Lewison is Ben, who has been Devi’s academic nemesis since they were children and is forever talking about his father being a big-time Hollywood agent. Darren Barnet is Paxton, a sculpted dreamboat and the object of Devi’s mad crush. Richa Moorjani is Devi’s live-in cousin Kamala, who is impossibly beautiful and working on her doctorate and of course Devi hates her. These are familiar archetypes who could have been one-note caricatures, but like every character in “Never Have I Ever,” they’re fully realized, complicated and authentic.
This series is filled with so many sly touches, e.g., when Devi orders a morning hot chocolate at the coffee shop but asks the barista to write “Latte” on the cup, and so many terrific exchanges, as when Devi complains about working in the home garden and her mother says if Devi would like to take over her dermatology practice, she’d be happy to switch jobs with her.
And then there’s Devi’s uncle, who tells Devi an evening run is a terrible idea: “You cannot run in Los Angeles at night. This is the city of Charles Manson and Harvey Weinstein.”
This is one of the best new shows of the year.