Netflix's Never Have I Ever may have seemed like it was a light-hearted comedy about a first-generation Indian-American teen girl navigating the throes of high school academics, social ascension and hot boys, but really, it was always about so much more. The emotional season one finale, which capped off a rocky, mistake-riddled journey of self-discovery, acceptance and letting go for Devi (breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), was the culmination of the young heroine coming to terms with life without her late father, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
For much of the season Devi had masked the true depths of her pain and grief of losing the family's lynchpin and her closest confidante, Mohan (Heroes' Sendhil Ramamurthy), from her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), her therapist Dr. Ryan (the brilliant Niecy Nash) and her two best friends, refocusing her attention on boys, specifically one Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). (Peter Kavinsky better be quaking in his boots.) But after a confluence of selfish decisions and a massive fight with her mother -- during which Devi snapped, "I wished you had been the one that died that night" -- Devi and her mom mended fences (for now) and together, along with cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), scattered Mohan's ashes into the sea on his birthday. Devi was letting him go.
But just because Devi took the first major step in moving on from her dad's death, there's still a long way to go. Prior to the scattering of her father's ashes, Nalini dropped a bombshell that could upend Devi's entire world: She was planning on relocating the family to India. Without Mohan there by her side to help raise Devi and keep everything afloat, it was -- in her mind -- the only logical decision. And then there's the whole romantic dilemma Devi unexpectedly finds herself at the center of by season's end: Does she go with Paxton, the hottie with a heart of gold? Or does she go with Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), academic nemesis-turned-maybe something more? Or maybe she picks herself? No matter where her heart lies, it's clear Devi still has a lot of growing up to do.
With the series now streaming, ET hopped on the phone with showrunner Lang Fisher for a frank, spoiler-filled discussion about the decisions behind some of the biggest moves in the freshman season, the debate between Team Paxton and Team Ben, the big India question and an early look at what season two will look like. Netflix, renew the show already!
ET: Congratulations on the first season. What has the response been like since it dropped several days ago?
Lang Fisher: It's been amazing. You never know on Netflix because there's so much stuff on it, and I guess we're in the No. 1 spot on their top 10, so that was incredible for us. And, it just seems like across the board people have found something in the show that speaks to them, which was all we ever really wanted.
The show made headlines when there was an open casting call for the lead, which led you to Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Why was it important for you find a fresh face?
What we were hoping for was to find someone who had a really original personality and who just seemed like an original. The character is this hot head who has so much personality that we wanted somebody who authentically embodied that. We wrote this very comedic part, and it's hard to find a teenage actor who is incredibly funny and to see as many people as we could to try to find the funniest person we could find, we opened it up. Mindy [Kaling] and I were weirdos who went to regular high school and we assumed that there would be someone like us out in the world who is a hilarious weirdo at her own high school that we could kind of match up.
How much did Devi's personality and journey evolve or change when you cast Maitreyi?
We had a real idea for who this character would be and what was interesting is when we were doing the open casting and we brought a selected group of girls out to L.A. to do screen tests, most of the girls were doing an impression of the character that we created. Maitreyi came in and just was the character. It was sort of a happy coincidence. She, to be fair, is much sweeter and more positive and outgoing and fun than Devi is. But the fiery personality and being able to throw away a one-liner, Maitreyi naturally was able to do that.
Mindy Kaling's own childhood was a big inspiration behind Devi's story. What were the checks and balances that you and the writers had about remaining authentic to Devi as a first-generation Indian American teen?
We had several first-gen writers on our staff. Not all of them were Indian, but we had a lot of writers whose parents were immigrants and who grew up in different places around the country. A lot of things were inspired by Mindy's upbringing, but we also listened to stories from our other writers who grew up with immigrant parents and what they dealt with. Like for instance, in the TikTok video, when Devi pulls away and has to put on a little T-shirt, that was a story from one of our writers whose mom would make her wear a little T-shirt underneath a tank top. And then a different writer's mom; they would have a closet full of See’s candies. And also the Swarovski animals, that was from a different writer. We all shared our stories and pains from high school and then wrote it into the experiences of this character, but we tried to make it as modern as possible. We wanted her to have all the desires and feelings of an American teen that will have the authenticity of having her parents having grown up somewhere else.
The final episode was incredibly emotional. Devi reaches a place where she's able to let go of her father. What does that moment at the beach signify to you?
Both Mindy and I have lost a parent and we wanted to really dig deep into the feelings of that. In the very first episode, when [Devi] has a dream where her father is alive, that was based on a type of dream that both Mindy and I have, where we dream that our parent is alive and then you ask the question in the dream: "But, you died?" And they say, "No, no. I'm OK now." We both had that dream multiple times. Part of the point of the whole season is that teenagers go through so much and they have such a hard time expressing the feelings and the hurt that they feel. Most of the time, instead of dealing with those things that are incredibly hard to process, they focus on these trivial high school things like popularity, boys, friendships, sex. We wanted to achieve at the end of the season that it's OK to let those feelings out. It's important to face the things that really hurt and face the things that are painful to you so you can move on. It's a real part of growing up. If you're unlucky enough to be young and have a real tragedy like that happened to you, it's important to face it.
Does this mean she won't see her father anymore in her dreams?
I don't think it'll be like in the movie Ghost where Patrick Swayze finally goes to heaven. I think we will still see her dad. We'll see him in flashbacks, we'll probably see him in dreams, we'll probably see her dealing with him in different ways. I don't think that this is it. Also, I don't think finally being able to say goodbye means that the process is over. I still dream about my dad all the time and I feel very much at peace with his death. But, I think, you just never say goodbye 100 percent to a person that's that important to you.
So the plan is, hopefully if there is a season two, Sendhil Ramumurthy will return and be a major presence.
Yeah. He's too handsome not to have in the show.
Was there a little bit of guilt, like, "Oh my God, we just killed off a hot dad?"
(Laughs.) Yeah. My mother was like, "Oh my God, that's the most handsome man in the world." I was like, "Don't worry." He'll be a large presence of any season going forward, because I think he's going to be a large presence in her life going forward. Sendhil, if you talk to him, we will want him back.
The complexity of Devi's relationship with her mom, Nalini, felt so fresh and real. Where do they stand at the end of the season? They came together at the end, but is there still mending to be done?
I think that they're a work in progress. They've had a real breakthrough in that beach scene. They have very different personalities and there's no way that Devi's not going to mess up in the future and disappoint her mom. They have different priorities so, while I think they may have taken a step forward now as a family of two with Kamala, there will be new challenges in the future. Because they are so different they will still have some stuff to work through as Devi grows up, because Devi's not particularly mature. I think high school will continue to test Nalini's patience.
There's the whole moving to India question that you introduce at the end of the season. Will they actually go through with it? Have you thought about filming an episode or two in India?
We don't know exactly what we're going to do, but we will certainly answer the question. It's not going to be forgotten. We purposefully didn't answer it to have some things to wonder about for next season aside from the love triangle. It's something we will figure out, but we wanted to leave it on the table as a possibility. At this point, Nalini still wants to move there, so we will figure out whether or not they decide to go.
You touched on the love triangle. By the end of the season there are real feelings involved between Devi and Paxton, even though it didn't start out that way. How much of their relationship evolved from the original plan?
It evolved as we made our way through the episodes and saw who we cast. We weren't 100 percent sure what we were going to do with them -- if we were going to just keep her pining after him or if we were actually going to have them kiss or not kiss. Once we introduced the element of his sister [Rebecca Hall-Yoshida], it gave him this depth and also gave him insecurities. He's afraid people think he's stupid and is embarrassed that he has to repeat the same classes. He's not particularly apathetic about school, but he is afraid that he's not as smart as he wants to be. He has some real insecurities and his sister is his best friend, and he loves her. We made him more of an interesting character that has a lot of depth, and it made sense that he would find someone like Devi interesting and challenging, and they have real chemistry. It evolved as the story evolved. We didn't know exactly what we were going to do with them at the beginning either.
We see Paxton arriving at Devi's door in the finale. What was going to be his next move if she actually answered?
I mean, who knows? Who knows what he was going to do? We have to think about it. The thing with Paxton is he is cool and he does have the ability to date a lot of ladies. His sister called him out on his… I want to say f**kboy. She called him out on being that kind of a guy. I think there's part of him that doesn't want to be that way, doesn't want his sister to look at him like that, so it's unclear if he even knows what he was going to do when he gets to her door. He just felt like he should go over there and knows that he was kind of a d*ck to her at school earlier.
When did it occur to you that Ben could be the third point in a potential love triangle? Was that always the plan to have a love triangle?
It also came with the casting. We wanted her to have an enemy. Jaren Lewison, who plays Ben, is so great at that -- even when he's being a jerk, he's kind of winning. They also have such good chemistry, like, when they were being mean to each other, that we were like, "All right this seems like it could be something." So much of it has to do with who has chemistry with whom. Ben could have easily stayed a nemesis if the two actors didn't have such good chemistry. When we saw them sparring with each other, and it was almost flirtatious, we were like, "OK, there are some sparks here even though they're being incredibly mean to one another."
The Team Paxton and Team Ben debate has been all over Twitter. Has that surprised you? Do you have your own personal allegiance?
(Laughs.) I'll tell you what, my absolute goal was once we settled on the love triangle I wanted it to really be 50/50. If you watch most love triangles in movies there is always a favorite, like the writers are pushing you towards that person, and you can't help but [like that person]. Like, more people were team Edward than team Jacob in Twilight. In Bridget Jones' Diary, you want her to end up with Darcy; you don't want her to end up with Hugh Grant. There's a love triangle, but you're like, "She has to end up with this person." My dream was that we could sell those relationships so well that people would be confused with who they were rooting for, because I don't know who she should end up with at the end. Truly, I don't. I am not on either team. I want to let the story organically unfold. But I did purposefully want to make either side plausible, you know what I mean?
Yeah, of course. I'm personally Team Paxton.
(Laughs.) My mom is also Team Paxton. She was like, "Oh yes, Team Paxton all the way." I was like, "OK mom, chill out."
Kamala has been toggling between her first boyfriend, Steve (played by Eddie Liu), and the possibility of an arranged marriage with Prashant (played by Rushi Kota). Are you done exploring Kamala and Steve, and moving forward with seeing where a possible romance with Prashant goes?
It's hard to say. Since we haven't started writing the second season, because we haven't gotten it yet, I don't want to say we're done with anyone. But I do think where we've left off she is going to probably start dating Prashant and see where that goes. Whether or not Steve pops back up or she finds him again, remains to be seen. We were trying to do two things. We wanted there to be a progressive arranged marriage story. I know [Mindy] had people in her family who were. We wanted it to be not a negative old-fashioned trope, since there are people who have really happy outcomes.
But then we wanted also to make her like a modern woman, studying science and who is her early 20s and is having her very first boyfriend. We want her to land on being able to make a decision for herself and what makes her happy. By saying that she's not ready to get engaged, but wants to date, and then also doesn't want to just stick with her very first boyfriend, we're opening her up for a lot of possibilities and for her to be the captain of her own ship. That's what we were trying to do, to let her come across as someone who's coming into her own independence and not feeling like she has to be with either of these guys. But yeah, both of them are really hot and would be good boyfriends. She’s doing great. I think we will pick up with her probably dating Prashant.
How are you feeling about a second season?
I mean, I'm hopeful. You never know. It's like, you don't want to jinx anything but I feel optimistic. I'd love to keep telling the story and come back and see where these characters are. It was a really fun show to work on and to write. I'm optimistic but nothing's a guarantee.
John McEnroe was such a revelation as the narrator for this chapter in Devi’s life. How did that all kind of come about?
It kind of came about with a conversation that Mindy and I had at the very beginning of writing the pilot. We wanted to create a character, a teen girl who had a lot of anger and who was acting out, and thought it would be kind of a big swing that may be really funny to have this 61-year-old man, who is known for his outbursts, be the voice in her head. We had a lot of fun making Andy Samberg the voice of Ben in episode six. We'll try to do that in the future with other characters, have some weird celebrity be the voice that talks to them. We were not sure it was going to work but then it did, we were like, “This is great!” It makes things so funny. When he cares about what these dumb teenagers are up to, it's so funny to me, when he's just like, “Paxton Hall-Yoshida, ooh-la-la." That's great.
Is the plan for him to return for a season two or are you looking at a new voice for the next phase of her life?
We haven't talked about it, but I think most people really liked him, so yeah. Right now, unless we come up with another incredible idea… If he wants to do it again, we would keep him on.
Do you have names in mind for guest voices for episodes about Eleanor, Fabiola, even Paxton?
We've definitely talked about a bunch of people, but there's so many that could be so funny. I was just thinking of who Nalini's voice could be. The voice could be anyone. I don't want to say any names because Mindy and I haven't actually talked about it. I feel like there's a wide range of people. You could have any kind of celebrity. You could have a politician be someone. We already have an athlete, an actor. But yeah, that is a fun thing to think about.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix.
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