It’s been nearly 15 years since The Office gave us “The Injury.” You remember “The Injury,” right? It’s the one where Michael cooks his foot on a George Foreman grill, Dwight gets concussed and starts acting nice to Pam, and the gas station in Carbondale does not have fresh yams. It is easily the funniest episode of that show, and one of the most consistently laugh-out-loud half-hours of this century.
At the time it debuted, though, “The Injury” was wildly unpopular with many Office fans, because NBC was running episodes out of order. The previous week’s installment, “Booze Cruise,” ended with Michael finding out about Jim’s crush on Pam, and encouraging him to pursue her. It was meant to air back-to-back with “The Secret,” where Jim frets that Michael is going to blurt out his secret to the world, but instead it was followed by this wholly comedic, standalone story where Michael just wants Pam to rub Country Crock on his injured sole.
“The Injury” was written by Mindy Kaling, who years later recalled that because of that scheduling choice, “On message boards, people were so angry” about an episode where Dwight vomits on camera, Michael falls off the toilet, and Jim and Pam barely interact. “I think fans of Jim and Pam’s romance really thought it was like a very pointed ‘fuck you’ to them and where the story was going.”
Kaling was glad that episode’s reputation eventually did a 180. But it feels oddly appropriate that the most beloved episode of TV she’s written so far in an impressive career was greeted at the time with complaints that it was sacrificing characterization for punchlines. That situation wasn’t her fault, obviously, but her next series, The Mindy Project (which she both wrote and starred in), had a weakness for doing that without the help of meddling network executives. The show could be riotously funny, but it was also trying to be a romantic comedy and a character study of a woman struggling to grow up without losing the things that were uniquely her. And whatever momentum Kaling built up on the more sincere end of things could be wiped out in an instant by a punchline that was too funny to cut, no matter how it reflected on Mindy Lahiri or one of her colleagues(*). At times, the fictional Mindy could come across as a pure sociopath, which made it hard to reinvest in her love life.
(*) To be fair, The Office had this problem with Michael, who could behave wildly differently depending on who wrote that week’s episode. My colleague Andy Greene suggests Kaling’s version of Michael was a bit more vulnerable and needy than that of some of his peers. (In Greene’s great Office oral history, Lee Eisenberg says, “Mindy would write the most gay version of Michael,” while Justin Spitzer says, “Mindy’s Michael was more feminine.”)
The first episode of Kaling’s new Netflix series, Never Have I Ever (which she co-created with Mindy Project alum Lang Fisher), literally has a friend of its high school heroine Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) warn her, “You know you sound like a sociopath, right?” Devi — a sophomore outcast still reeling from the death of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), and only just recovered from the paralysis she suffered in that tragedy’s wake — has just laid out her elaborate plan for her and her friends to acquire boyfriends, lose their virginity, and become popular, and Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) are understandably worried that she seems way too intense. In that moment, a viewer couldn’t be blamed for assuming the new show would feel like a Mindy Project prequel, toggling back and forth between big laughs and uneven attempts to make us care about an emotional journey.
That’s not how it goes, though. Never Have I Ever isn’t nearly as funny as Kaling’s other work. It’s also not trying to be. There’s still plenty of humor to be found in Devi’s adolescence — particularly in a device that finds the story narrated by, of all people, tennis legend John McEnroe(*) — but it’s a far more straightforward and heartfelt coming-of-age tale. In the past, if there was a choice in a scene between a good joke or an emotionally honest moment, Kaling tended to choose the joke. Here, she and Fisher aim for what’s real. It’s pleasantly surprising, and very satisfying to watch throughout.
(*) No spoilers for why McEnroe is our narrator, but it makes sense when the explanation comes. And the show has a lot of fun juxtaposing his middle-aged male energy with these teenage girls. During a scene where Devi and her friends do Kegel exercises and try to learn about sexual positions using stuffed animals, he confesses, “Hey, this was really uncomfortable for me to watch.”
Ramakrishnan is a novice actor who responded to an open casting call Kaling announced on social media. You would not know it to watch her completely confident and natural lead performance. Kaling and Fisher put a whole lot on her shoulders, including slapstick, teen angst, and a seemingly hopeless crush on hot jock Paxton (Darren Barnet). And as Devi’s quest to be popular winds up pushing her apart from both her friends and her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), she’s also asked to make us empathize with a character who’s acting out and hurting people she loves. Ramakrishnan makes it all work.
Never Have I Ever shares narrative DNA with lots of other teen stories (including Netflix’s own movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Kissing Booth), but it’s also smartly informed by Devi’s status as a first-generation Indian-American daughter of immigrant parents. Devi’s glamorous older cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) weighs an arranged marriage versus dating an American college boy. An episode takes place at a Ganesh Puja celebration, and weaves in details of the holiday with character arcs even more successfully than The Office episode Kaling wrote about Diwali. The tension between Devi’s desire to assimilate and her mother’s more traditionalist leanings underlines everything, and makes the usual tropes about love triangles(*), wild parties, and painful misunderstandings feel brand new again.
(*) As could be the case with Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project, Kaling and Fisher have a tendency to lean too hard on the thin line between love and hate, initially making one character so unpleasant that the pivot towards love interest never quite works, despite a lot of effort expended on explaining and redeeming them.
It’s a very kind, warm, smart show to visit, and each half-hour episode breezed right by. In one, Devi winds up in a swimming pool at the end of a humiliating night. This also happened to Mindy Lahiri once. There, it was played entirely for laughs; here, it’s much more emotionally fraught. That’s because Never Have I Ever has decided that what it wants most is to make its young heroine seem like a three-dimensional person who can do ridiculous things, but who you ultimately are just rooting for. That can be a harder thing to pull off, especially with a character making the kinds of mistakes that are possible when you’re so young and naive. But the rewards can feel even more satisfying than a big laugh.
Netflix releases the first season of Never Have I Ever on April 27th.