by Delia Cai, Vanity Fair
The Netflix comedy delivers a groundbreaking counterweight to a usual archetype, and it’s the best part of the show.
When Never Have I Ever debuted on Netflix last spring, I wasn’t alone as an Asian American woman who found the premise thrillingly relatable: A 15-year-old girl pursues the swim team’s mixed-race abs god while navigating her identity as the daughter of immigrants, and wholesome chaos ensues. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, the show fit neatly into Netflix’s echelon of diversely cast rom-coms (think To All the Boys I Loved Before and Sex Education). Kaling herself had put out an open call to Desi girls worldwide for the show, with newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan beating out 15,000 respondents to nab the lead role of the naive but gutsy Devi Vishwakumar.
And despite one weird ableist plot point and questionably cast age differences, the show delivered as a win for South Asian representation and as a fun teen comedy with a first-generation twist. In the tradition of Sixteen Candles’ Sam Baker and father favorite Troy Bolton, Devi’s relationship with her parents serves as the undercurrent to her high schooler drama throughout the first season. In between Devi’s dreams and schemes and attempts to lose her virginity in Paxton Hall-Yoshida’s (abs god) garage, she finds comfort in memories of her late father, Mohan, and churlishly puts up with her overbearing mother, Nalini.
And at first glance the archetype of Nalini, played with deft steeliness by Poorna Jagannathan, checks off all the archetypal immigrant-mom boxes: She forbids Devi from dating; she forces Devi to dress traditionally for Ganesh Puja; and she constantly compares Devi to her perfect biologist cousin, Kamala. We get a few scenes that give insight into Nalini’s grief, but for the most part, as Devi gets herself into increasingly ridiculous situations, Nalini operates as her designated killjoy. Anyone who’s done battle over wearing body-con dresses with an Asian mother will find the dynamic accessible if not entirely new. (Also you likely know Jagannathan as the mom from The Night Of and the married older woman in Ramy, so her portrayal as another show’s South Asian matriarch is a familiar sensation itself.)
Consider the Asian immigrant mothers we’ve been introduced to onscreen in recent memory: In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel Chu’s single mom exists to warn her about the in-laws and to whisk her home when things fall apart. In Alan Yang’s Tigertail, Zhenzhen serves as an unhappy foil to Pin-Jui’s unyielding sense of sacrifice, which is what takes center stage. In Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s literal parents are presented as a single unit. And while Minari gives us a wonderfully ambivalent Monica, she still primarily exists as the antagonist to her husband’s American dream.
These contemporary immigrant narratives are necessary and important in their own right, but it’s no coincidence they’re filtered through the first-generation, usually millennial lens that their respective authors and showrunners experienced themselves. Do they make people like me feel seen? Oh, yes. Are they also inherently limited? Also yes, especially when the standardized first-gen point of view relegates the mother character as simply part of our origin story at best, and our main villain at worst.
It isn’t until the final episodes of season one that the increasingly grating zaniness of Devi’s romantic ploys gets pushed aside to have the show center on her strained relationship with her mother. Nalini has decided to move the family back to India. “I’m really struggling to raise you,” she admits, provoking Devi to have a flashback to the blowout fight they had shortly before Mohan’s heart attack. In one of the most wrenching moments of television I’ve ever seen, Devi lashes out and says, “I wish you were the one that died that night.” That’s when the show yanks us out of Devi’s id and into Nalini’s superego. All of those teenage hijinks flatten under the double weights of the grief and guilt Nalini has been carrying. By the time the season ends, we’re recentered on Devi, who, after reconciling with her mother and scattering her father’s ashes to the ocean, immediately finds herself lip-locked with Ben Gross. (I maintain, for the record, that he is a terrible love interest from start to finish, but I do love an Asian sister with options.) Nalini fades into the background once more.
Season two, which was released on Netflix last Thursday, opens up with this kiss scene, as witnessed and interrupted by Nalini as she furiously raps on the car window. It seems, despite the trailer’s promise of a very suave-looking, age-appropriate Common making eyes at Nalini, like we’re going to get more of the same nagging-immigrant-mom arc. Instead, the new season more wisely divides its time between Devi’s and Nalini’s individual story lines: While Devi plans her first rager, we also accompany Nalini on a solo trip she makes to prepare for the move back to India. Once there, we see her desire to be surrounded by family as she continues to grieve her husband—it’s only been about a year since Mohan’s death—but we also see how complicated that desire is. It turns out that Nalini’s own family is incapable of emotional support, and it isn’t until she visits her mother-in-law that she is allowed to show vulnerability.
“It’s been a hard year, hasn’t it?” Mohan’s mother tells her as she rubs Nalini’s head with a tenderness both Jagannathan and Ranjita Chakravarty masterfully embody. This is where the waterworks began for me, to see Nalini in daughter mode herself, not as the ever-present shrill out to ruin Devi’s life. This zoom-out is a moment of recognition we’re all supposed to encounter as we grow up, but for children of immigrants, it’s even more loaded because it’s the part of filial piety that often goes unsaid: that yes, we should take care of our parents because we owe them everything, but also because they’re people who spend their whole lives still figuring out how to love and be loved too.
From there we’re treated to the further nuances of Nalini’s life outside of her identity as the immigrant mom: She’s the successful dermatologist who can also rock a gorgeous jacquard silk suit; she’s the flirty but cautious single woman sneaking out to rendezvous with a hot colleague; and most heartbreakingly, she’s the widow who’s very much still in the fresh throes of grief.
“I miss your father so much it physically hurts. I guess I just wanted a break from that pain,” she tells Devi after Devi catches her on a date and berates her for forgetting about dad. “Are you the only one around here that gets to make these rash decisions?” It’s a simple but perfect scene that not only links Nalini and Devi with a familial inclination toward impulsivity, but also gives Nalini’s needs and wants a real space to exist in their own right. Life doesn’t only begin when you’re the kid making sure your history teacher doesn’t confuse you with the other Asian girl, nor does it stop after you’ve moved to the new country and assembled the family and gotten the picket fence.
By following Nalini’s story beyond the basic assimilation arc and exploring her character via universal themes of parenting, loss, and intergenerational family ties, we get a fully three-dimensional character who is easily the best part of the show. The Nalini we see in season two isn’t just the immigrant-mom origin story holding Devi back, but a woman still in the middle of her life who’s searching and wanting and healing in her own ways. When Devi delivers the requisite “you’re the best mom ever” line, we watch Nalini look away doubtfully, and we know how much this means to her. Not because being a good mom is her one and only goal, but because it’s the unbidden act of love that she’s been looking for all this time too.
Director of Photography: Rhet Bear