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May 7, 2020

Review: Netflix's Never Have I Ever

(Header image via Netflix)

Did you ever play the game Never Have I Ever as a kid? You know, one person says something like “never have I ever kissed a boy,” and if you have kissed a boy, you put your finger down, but if you have not, the finger stays up. Well, imagine that scenario, but then actually trying to do the things you’ve never done before. In the new hit Netflix series Never Have I Ever (language), high schooler Devi sets out to do just that.

Written by actress and comedian Mindy Kaling, the show features an Indian-American high school sophomore who’s obsessed with doing things she’s never done (i.e. having sex, drinking, etc.). And while the show can seem pretty raunchy and shallow, Devi’s underlying motivation for pursuing these experiences isn’t just because she’s a naturally reckless teenager. She’s trying to numb a deep family tragedy.

What’s this show about?

In the first episode, we learn that eight months before the main plot begins, Devi’s father passed away from a sudden heart attack during her orchestra’s recital. She now lives in southern California with her super-strict mom and unfairly-beautiful older cousin. Devi loved and connected easily with her father, but struggles to make the same connection with her mother, and the two women grapple daily in power struggles. Devi wants to have a normal teenage life, but her mother won’t even let her hang out with boys, which Devi resents.

Ultimately, it’s because Devi is unable to cope with and process her father’s death that she tries to fill her life with these “never have I ever” experiences. She continuously pushes down memories, emotions, and pain associated with him and tries to replace those thoughts with the superfluous happenings of everyday teenage life. In an attempt to help Devi to cope with her father’s death, her mother sends her to therapy. But despite her therapist’s attempt to get Devi to open up about his death, she’s only really interested in talking about boys, sex, and friend problems. Why think about her dead dad when she can refocus her energy on hooking up with the hottest guy in school, Paxton?

Throughout the entire show, Devi tries (and fails) to do the things she’s never done before. She makes it to a party, but ends up falling in a pool. She does get Paxton to befriend her, but every time they make plans to hook up, she gets scared and runs away. She gains some of the popularity she so craves, but loses her best friends in the process. It all ties into the fact that she’s simply chasing dreams that aren’t really her dreams because she doesn’t want to face the fact that her father is gone.

Why Devi represents modern teens

Many of our own kids are anxious, depressed, confused, and faced with a lot of trials they’re unprepared for. Loved ones may pass away, friends may turn on them, classmates may bully them to no end. Sometimes, superficial things like getting TikTok famous or being noticed by handsome guys and beautiful girls at school can seem like an easy way to fill the void when life feels disappointing, painful, and lonely.

We want the best for our kids, of course. We love them so very deeply and would never want them to seek approval in the ways Devi does. But Devi’s destructive behaviors demonstrate the need that all teenagers have: to experience love, belonging, and the knowledge that someone values them.

It’s our job as parents to help our kids to see the value we see in them, so they don’t have to run to others for that reassurance; to guide them in facing their problems head-on, so they don’t have to ignore them in search of something different, something that feels better; to disciple them and show them the love of the Lord, so they don’t have to wonder whether or not anyone really cares for them.

Talk about the show with your teen

If your teen is already watching Never Have I Ever, we encourage you to consider watching the show with them. Or, if they’ve finished the show, watch the series on your own. (It’s only one season and they’re quick episodes.) It could be a great way to show your kid that you’re invested in them, and you want to talk to them about the things they actually care about.

It’s worth noting again that although the show may seem to encourage things like teen sexuality, partying, etc., it’s all pointing to a deeper root issue, a deeper hurt that’s spun Devi into this search for a new identity in worldly things. She doesn’t really want the things she’s pursuing, she just wants to feel okay (and by the end of the show, she does come to this important realization as she faces her pain and mends her broken relationship with her mother). Underneath these types of rebellion, there’s almost always a deeper pain that drives them, and punishing the behavior without taking a closer look at why the behavior is happening only leaves that deeper pain unaddressed. As James K.A. Smith wrote in You Are What You Love, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.”

If you decide to watch the show, we encourage you to get a conversation going afterward. First, some questions to ask yourself: Have you ever experienced something deeply painful in your life? How did you handle it? Was it difficult to find ways to cope in a healthy way? Then, you might ask your kid one of these questions: 

  • Do you feel like this show accurately represents what teens go through today? How so?
  • Why do you think Devi is on this quest for popularity and getting together with Paxton?
  • What did she really want/need in the end?
  • Have you ever felt like Devi feels? Like you need to push your feelings down and only focus on the positive things?
  • Why do you think swallowing our emotions might be unhealthy?
  • What do you think are good ways to cope with things like grief, loss, anxiety, or depression?
  • Is there any way I could help you in handling the emotions you have?
  • What do you need in order to cope well with the things you experience?

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