Never Have I Ever's Devi Vishwakumar may just be one of TV's most difficult characters, and Mindy Kaling knows it.
As it follows drama queen Devi (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, a breakthrough role for the Mississauga actor) while she ricochets between boyfriends, best friends and family drama, the teen comedy has proven itself as one of Netflix's most popular shows ever since it premiered back in 2020. But also from the start, its formula for connecting with audiences was radically different from other high school dramas and rom-coms.
Because, almost unfailingly, every single choice Devi makes, makes you want to scream.
"I think that's what makes the character cinematic and really fun," co-creator Kaling told CBC News about writing for Devi — a character somewhat based on her own childhood growing up in and around Boston. "It's so much more fun to watch someone who believes in themselves and makes big mistakes than someone who chooses not to put themselves out there — which is way more what I was like."
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Kaling said she's well aware that, for some fans of the show, Devi's wild, impulsive decisions can make them want to tear their hair out. It's an amplified version of herself, she said, with some decisive changes — both are ambitious and judgmental, both are "big strivers" who want the world for themselves.
The difference, Kaling said, is the confidence Devi has, and her often destructive — but always interesting — identity as a "hothead."
"That's why it's really fun to see this talented actress play her," Kaling said, "because it's like, 'What is she going to come up with now?'"
Show and actors have grown
In Never Have I Ever, Devi's mistakes come hard and fast — especially in the show's new season, which premiered today on Netflix. Devi is once again back at Sherwood Oaks High School, once again struggling to choose between parallel love interests Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) and once again butting heads with her mom, Poorna Jagannathan's Nalini Vishwakumar.
And Jagannathan's masterclass performance of a mother desperately trying to figure out how best to support a teenager — who doesn't exactly want that help — is the perfect foil to look at how Never Have I Ever, and its actors, have grown.
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While the show can read like a juvenile version of Gossip Girl (try keeping track of whether Kamala's more into Prashant, Steve or Manish; how Eleanor and Fabiola are fighting about the text Malcolm sent to Isabella; or whether Aneesa is going to hook up with Ben after the rumour Devi totally told Shira at the school's all-night marathon) there's a more serious theme running right under its surface.
While Kaling based the show largely on her own teenage years, it also draws on her experience of losing her mother in 2012. In the show, that exists as Devi grappling with the death of her own father — something Never Have I Ever once again builds to in its final episodes, luring you in with comedy only to hit you over the head with tragedy.
Only this time, the show finally seems to be getting through to the heart of its characters. In its strongest (and penultimate, as Kaling plans to end Never Have I Ever after Season 4) season yet, the laughs are still there, but the series about teenage angst finally allows its main character to get to the root of her own problems.
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After two years of desperately trying to mask grief over her father with popularity and relationships, a tearful Devi asks her mom at the end of season 3, "What if nobody ever loves me, because I'm always too much?"
Nalini's answer to that question, and Devi's reaction to it, not only show the growth of the show, but both the problems and opportunities of young-adult TV. If you buy into the real pain and missteps of growing up, you let characters mature along with your audience — all while watching your cast do the same.
'Mindy has given me such a great gift with Devi'
"That's the thing about doing these shows with young actors, is it's so bittersweet to see the end of the journey," Kaling said. "It's emotional. And it's, you — you hope that you didn't scar these young people for life."
Ramakrishnan — who landed the star role in Never Have I Ever when she was 17 — says she's seen the same.
"I got to see like a little reel of footage that we took all the way from season one to even filming parts of Season 4," she said. "And I watched it and I was like, 'Wow. Like, this kid's grown up, like, this character.' But then I, of course, see my face and I'm like, 'That kid has grown up.'"
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Since debuting in Never Have I Ever, Ramakrishnan has had a few other roles — including in the My Little Pony: Make Your Mark Netflix special and the Toronto-based Pixar film Turning Red — but is tight-lipped about where exactly she'd like her career to go from here.
What she will say? That she feels a sense of responsibility to increase the representation of South Asian actors and culture, and hopes to continue to play characters just as complicated as Devi.
"For me, it's about taking characters that have that hero's journey, that have a character arc, whether they're a hero or a villain. Just they have depth and a story to tell because Mindy has given me such a great gift with Devi," she said.
"Why would I want to take a character that is anything less than that?"
South Asian talent keeps Kaling coming back to Canada
For Kaling's part, her future has a number of connections with Canada. She's set to adapt Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin's novel Hana Khan Carries On into a series for Amazon Studios, continues to work alongside Canadian actor Amrit Kaur in The Sex Lives of College Girls, and has one final season of Never Have I Ever to release with Ramakrishnan.
Kaling says it's the diverse population of South Asian talent that keeps her coming back to Canada and Canadian creators.
"There's something special going on there," Kaling said. "And I feel so lucky to have access to it. So yeah, thank you, Canada."
To Ramakrishnan, the answer is a bit more simple.
"We're all just chillin'. We're all just sipping on the maple syrup, chillin' in Toronto, waiting for our opportunity," she said. "We're just vibing."