Netflix’s Never Have I Ever premiered last April to universal acclaim. The show is a welcome entry in the teen rom-com canon, winking to its John Hughes-ian influences while breaking new ground in the genre. It’s also been celebrated for its intersectionality and diversity — the Indian heritage of its main character, high school sophomore Devi, is an integral part of its fabric. In one episode, Devi celebrates the Indian ritual of Ganesh Puja, and her world is created with the deft touch you’d hope for in a Netflix show from a creative team led by co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.
Towards the back half of its first season, Never Have I Ever develops its central love triangle, with Devi torn between her popular kid crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida, and Ben Gross, her one-time nemesis. The first season ends on a cliffhanger, with Devi and Ben kissing as Paxton calls her on the phone — the two previously shared their own kiss as well. This sets up the conceit for a second season: Will Devi choose Ben, who she has more in common with, or Paxton, the guy she’s been crushing on for most of the first season?
Ben Gross is the show’s central Jewish character — Jaren Lewison, the actor who portrays him, is also Jewish. Much has been made of the way Never Have I Ever handled Ben’s Jewishness in the first season — it often feels as though whatever Jewish identity the show carves out for him is either surface level or rooted in lazy stereotypes. There’s a nasty Holocaust joke — at one point, after Ben insults her, Devi whispers under her breath, “I wish the Nazis would kill you.” Ben’s dad is an absent entertainment lawyer, and Ben talks frequently about his over-the-top bar mitzvah — Blake Griffin showed up, if you hadn’t heard.
The show makes Ben’s wealth one of his defining characteristics — in a standalone episode following his life, Ben worries aloud that he’s afraid his Jewish girlfriend, Shira, is only dating him for his money. Stereotypes surrounding Jewish people and money are pervasive and have taken an especially sinister turn with the rise of the alt-right and an increase in antisemitic hate crimes the past several years. It’s why it was especially disappointing to see a show that gets so much right regarding representation and reflecting new perspectives on screen revert to tired tropes in its depiction of Judaism.
A second season marks the chance for Never Have I Ever to course-correct, to further develop Ben Gross into a multi-dimensional character and acknowledge that the complaints from Jewish viewers have been heard. However, early indications hint that this will not be the case.
If you’re excited for the new season, we have a lot in COMMON pic.twitter.com/27z4NEymIw
— Never Have I Ever (@neverhaveiever) April 14, 2021
In the first of a series of promotional images released last week in advance of the show’s second season, Devi is shown displaying a pros and cons list designed to help her decide between her two love interests. On the right, we see fairly benign descriptions attributed to Paxton — he’s popular, but also bad at school. But on the left, we see that one of Devi’s listed pros for dating Ben is that he’s “hella rich,” and one of her cons is that he has “hairy forearms.”
When I saw this image — which, it’s important to note, is the very first featured in a series of threaded tweets as well as the primary photo on an Instagram post Kaling shared — I had a visceral reaction. It felt like a direct rebuke to the issues Jewish viewers raised about how Ben is portrayed, a doubling down of what Never Have I Ever has clearly decided is one of the most important aspects of his character. For this to have happened, one of the following has to be true: Either the writers weren’t listening this past year, have decided this type of language isn’t harmful, or don’t care.
For a show with a young, impressionable audience, how people their age are presented matters. These “jokes” are internalized and can lead to further perpetuation of stereotypes. In an NPR interview conducted around the time of the show’s premiere, Terry Gross asked Kaling whether there was a fear that people would misinterpret or be sensitive to certain jokes, to which Kaling responded, “….because I think the lead is what people would call, like, a marginalized person, like a young Indian American girl, I think we’re able to get away with stuff because of a certain powerlessness that that demographic has in society [laughter], honestly.”
That answer is telling — it’s something Kaling had to have anticipated Gross would ask. It also represents her thinking as she and the show’s writers planned out the show’s second season. Essentially, as Kaling sees it, it’s fine to direct Holocaust jokes towards Jewish people as long as they come from someone striving for agency they feel they haven’t been given in the past. If Kaling feels that writing stereotypes into her show is an act of exercising power, she should probably reconsider how she wields that power.
I’m not going to pretend to know what goes on in a sitcom writers’ room, but I do know that anything written for public consumption involves a lengthy editing process and discussions about what to keep and what to cut. With the release of this promotional image, it’s becoming harder to deny that Never Have I Ever stereotyping Jewish people for laughs isn’t intentional.
The show releases its second season this July. Maybe Ben will be given more depth and reckon further with his Jewish identity in this new batch of episodes. For now, that Never Have I Ever has launched its second season rollout by outwardly and proudly promoting the repetition of the same mistakes that plagued its first season doesn’t bode well for its Jewish representation. If this indeed turns out to be the case come July, a show marked by nuanced diversity elsewhere will sport a blemish that has only become more transparent.