People like to believe grief is far away. A dramatic and inevitable part of our existence to avoid talking or thinking about. It’s one of those unfortunate things people simply get to when they “get there.” But this is often not the case. Especially for Devi Vishwakumar, the high school heroine of Mindy Kaling’s new show on Netflix Never Have I Ever. During an orchestra performance, Devi’s father suddenly collapses and passes away from a heart attack. A week or so later, Devi loses the feeling in her legs. Three months later, when trying to check out her high school crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida, she gets the feeling back — just in time for sophomore year. Determined not to be labeled a weirdo, Devi throws herself into a school years resolution: to have a boyfriend, become cool, and have sex. What looks like another high school rom-com with yet another 20-something man playing a teen heartthrob in a jeep, Never Have I Ever is more than meets the eye.
We all know the traditional architecture of a teen love story. A teen in an unfortunate state of uncoolness is always our hero. They become romantically involved with someone “out of their league” for reasons that boil down to 25% coincidence, 25% cool new lewks/ makeover, 25% group projects, and 25% detention. This reason or reasons eventually brings our two lovebirds together with a make-out scene to the bop of the moment. Every film, from the casually sexist/racist John Hughes’ pictures to the 90’s high school classics follows this narrative.
Don’t get me wrong I love this genre, having grown up with it as a 90’s baby but there’s a limit to what these characters can hope to achieve. From Ali Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club to even Julia Stiles’s feminist Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, rom-com heroines may try to be less girly or traditionally “feminine,” but they still end up inside the boy-meets-girl cliché. Kat graduating high school and getting into Sarah Lawerence isn’t the central accomplishment of 10 Things I Hate About You, her getting together with Heath Ledger is. And no, the exploration of Ali Sheedy’s weirdness and emo tendencies isn’t the foundation of Breakfast Club, it’s merely a hurdle she overcomes to end up with Emilio Estevez.
While romantic love is a central storyline of Never Have I Ever, it’s not what drives the story forward and it isn’t at the core of Devi’s psyche. It’s not what makes her tick and it’s not what we’re primarily looking for her to explore and cope with. Instead, the death of Devi’s dad anchors the show. Through flashbacks and dreams, we see the memories of Devi with her father and how they motivate her to question the choices she makes. Through the eyes of Niecy Nash, who plays Devi’s therapist, we learn about what triggers her grief and how she continues to acknowledge its existence and effect on her.
Now grief and loss have been explored before in teen movies and shows whether it’s Fault In Our Stars or A Walk to Remember. In these films, a young couple falls in love like in a traditional romantic comedy. However as the end of the film nears one of the characters loses the new love-of-their-life due to cancer (or some other terminal illness), ending and cementing their romances in a modern Romeo and Juliet-esque love story.
While these stories do have a place in film and in some personal experiences, they don’t give grief the attention and examination it deserves. As the incomparable Joan Didion articulates “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.” Never Have I Ever gives grief the space it deserves. The show effortlessly displays the waves of emotion that come with losing a loved one and the unexpected ways loss manifests itself in our lives and psyche. And that grief is okay. Through Devi’s experiences, we see how differently people express and process grief like Devi and her mother, Nalini. We see the pressure people are put under to show and perform grief in a specific way, when Nalini and Devi attend Ganesh Puja. The advice people try to give to comfort and instruct those who are grieving are familiar and show how little we know about grief itself and how to support others through it. In the teen-terminal-love stories, the majority of the films are built around characters finding love, falling in love, and finally losing love soon after the film ends. This is where Never Have I Ever begins. Instead of leading up to death, the show delves into what happens after the funeral and tear jerking eulogies, what happens when people stop calling.
In Never Have I Ever, not only do we get to see grief, we get to see a brown girl grieving her father. Many teen films show white people dealing with grief — very rarely if ever is this shown through the eyes of people of color. And if we do get to grieve, it is usually an exploitative, stereotypical storyline. In the Lantix community, we see many stories that feature grief but it’s often around immigration or senseless gang violence, things so many people can write off as “never going to happen to me.” Brown people deserve to have our grief normalized, to see what’s like for us to lose a loved one, as we did with Coco (although one movie is never enough). In many Brown and minority communities, whether it’s dealing with grief or mental health, there is often a stigma. Never Have I Ever does that — it gives us an honest narrative about a brown girl dealing with loss.
Grief is one of the more inevitable facets of the human experience and we don’t talk about it enough. Our storytelling mediums — TV, film, even books — don’t prepare young people to understand what it looks or feels like. And they certainly don’t teach how to support those experiencing it. Grief is tough to dramatize — it isn’t something that happens all at once or that ends once someone is gone. It lingers, hitting us in the subtleties of our daily lives. And more often than not, it’s not a doomed tragic love story, but a difficult part of life. But that’s why we need these stories even more and I thank Mindy Kaling for giving us one that is honest, funny, and beautifully human.