In quarantine, with nothing to do, I have been going through television shows at a rate that is frankly a little bit embarrassing. So, after rewatching just about everything, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever” was set to premiere April 27. Right in the midst of this global pandemic, it seemed that “The Office” alumna was here to save the day with a fresh new show about the life of Indian-American high schooler Devi Vishwakumar.
Moreover, as an Indian-American myself, the show promised to bring much-needed media representation into my life. I was so excited to see a girl who looked like me and had a life like mine on screen. We heard so much about 18-year-old lead actress, Maitreya Ramakrishnan, beating out 15,000 others with practically no headshots. The authenticity that she came with was so thrilling. Quite literally, the show was about the girl next door, but with immigrant parents.
However, after binge-watching all 10 episodes, I’m left with some uncertain feelings. Although the show was undoubtedly interesting and enjoyable to watch, at times I wondered whether it was doing enough to really delve into the topics it addressed. When they talked about things like arranged marriage, the death of a family member or really anything else, it felt so surface level. Not to mention some of the very over-the-top and somewhat out-of-touch writing.
I guess I expected the show to be a serious, nuanced television show looking at the Indian diaspora in the United States, but what I got was a casually intelligent teen comedy. The first season of “Never Have I Ever” may not totally address every issue with grace, but it does manage to set up a wide array of diverse characters with real-life human personalities. It is by no means a perfect show. And it certainly does not encapsulate everything about being Indian-American in today’s America. But it is a step toward normalizing representation of people of color in mainstream media. I don’t mean to say that I cringed throughout every moment, but at the end of the day we should see this is as what it is: just a drop in what will, hopefully, become an ocean.
For the longest time, South Asian representation in mainstream media consisted of grossly exaggerated stereotypes, like Apu from “The Simpsons.” But today we have people like Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari and now Maitreya Ramakrishnan. Things are moving in a positive direction.
When we criticize shows like “Never Have I Ever” we have to keep in mind that it is just one perspective within the enormous umbrella of “Indian-American.” The Indian-American experience is one that is universal, but also so amazingly diverse. For a group that is so often reduced to IT and curry jokes, there is quite a wide range of perspectives, opinions, and experiences.
If we should learn anything from “Never Have I Ever,” it’s that we need more POC representation, and there is an urgent need for POC actors, producers, writers and everything in between in Hollywood. Only with the presence of these people will there be true representation in the media we consume. I don’t want to have an “Indian-American show.” I want there to be so many representative shows with honest storylines that we no longer have to place the pressure of being the Indian-American show on one singular series. It’s time that the voices and stories seen on our television and our streaming sites accurately reflect the wide array of voices that come from people of color.
Of course, another thing I’ve found to be a common occurrence with teen shows featuring a person of color is that we hold it to an unimaginable standard. As an Indian-American, I have found myself guilty of doing just that. Hearing that a new show starring a person of color and expecting it to be absolutely perfect, break stereotypes, resonate with its target audience and also be incredibly intelligent. But we don’t do this with white-led television shows or movies. We can see movies like “Mean Girls” and shows like “Gossip Girl” that exist for no particular reason outside of enjoyment. We don’t expect them to be anything more than entertainment. This, in itself, is a privilege that we aren’t afforded.
When we see media content by creators of color, we expect it to be more than just entertaining; we want it to be ground-breaking and absolutely original and perfect. And if you ask me, it’s because we see it as our “one shot,” the one opportunity for representation, and it has to be perfect or we’ll lose our chance. The future of entertainment has room for lighthearted people of color representation. People of color don’t exist in the confines of seriousness, and our media should reflect that.
Now, having said all of this, I still don’t know where I stand on “Never Have I Ever,” but I do think one thing is clear after watching it: People of color representation has been disgustingly lacking in mainstream media, and to finally have some of it feels like a breath of fresh air.