“Never Have I Ever Season Four” Stepped Right Into the Affirmative Action Debate

Season four of Never Have I Ever is entirely dedicated to college — a fitting theme as Devi and her friends, Fabiola and Eleanor, enter their senior year of high school. But, even more so than previous seasons, the main conflicts feel especially contrived. And the underlying politics of the story are more troubling than ever before.

From the beginning of the series, Devi has dreamed of attending Princeton, and we learn that this dream is rooted in a memory of her late father. On the day of the high school’s college fair, though, Devi fumbles her meeting with the representative from Princeton, cutting to the front of the line and aggressively promoting herself when the rep makes clear that she should wait her turn like the rest of her classmates. But, by the end of the day, Devi manages to turn it around with her honesty and integrity when she admits to the Princeton rep that her new boyfriend stole the rep’s wallet.

Little does Devi know, however, that her friend Fabiola has also decided to apply early to Princeton. Fabiola hadn’t been planning to even speak with the Princeton rep, knowing that Devi had called “dibs” on the university back when they were in elementary school. But at her mother’s insistence, Fabiola stops by Princeton’s table at the college fair and learns about the exceptional robotics program. And so, Fabiola secretly applies early without telling Devi and gets in, while Devi is waitlisted. When she eventually finds out, Devi lets her fury and anger get the better of her, in the way that she has since the beginning of the series.

Fabiola is holding a business card and smiling. She's wearing a red polo shirt for the Robotics club and her hair is in buns. We see the back of the Princeton rep, who handed Fabiola her card.

It’s an interesting choice to make this one of the major arcs of the season, given that any day now the Supreme Court is expected to strike down Affirmative Action. The argument put forward by a group of Asian American applicants to top tier institutions is that by using race as a factor for consideration in admissions, Asian American applicants are being discriminated against and having their chances of being accepted unfairly curtailed. As countless research has shown, the real harm comes from legacy and athlete admissions, which is how the Ivies continue to perpetuate homogenous student bodies composed overwhelmingly of white students from families that fall within the top one percent of income. The argument also, conveniently, ignores the racist history of these historic institutions, rooted in slavery and segregation, that was the original basis for Affirmative Action as a form of reparations.

As I’ve noted before, Mindy Kaling sits in uncomfortable proximity to this anti-Black racist argument put forward by Asian Americans. Years ago, her brother pulled a racist publicity stunt to try to make the false point that his chances of getting into medical school improved when he pretended to be a Black applicant. Mindy has said nothing publicly, even as her brother used her fame and reputation to get a surge of media attention that his racist act otherwise would never have been afforded.

Intentional or not, season four of Never Have I Ever provides fodder for the same racist argument that her brother advanced and that is now in front of the Supreme Court. By the show’s accounting, Fabiola ruined Devi’s chances of getting into Princeton by applying early. Allegedly, Princeton will only accept one student from a high school like Sherman Oaks. The conflict becomes an opportunity for the series to finally show some character growth for Devi as she eventually realizes she shouldn’t be cutting off her best friend for being successful. But ultimately, Fabiola decides not to attend Princeton, and it’s only at that point that Devi gets accepted.

As in previous seasons, it’s hard not to feel that a show that’s theoretically about raising the profile of an often-misrepresented racial minority in America completely misrepresents racism as it exists in America. Ironically, Fabiola decides to attend Howard, but there’s no discussion of what it means for someone like Fabiola — who literally has never been portrayed as having a Black friend — to attend an HBCU. It’s all about robotics for Fabiola, not identity, even as her storyline early in the season is that she’s the president of a misogynist club. While I had given up hope that Never Have I Ever would present Fabiola’s Afro Latina identity with anything resembling depth, this final move only underscores how much Fabiola’s character is about checking the box for Black representation for Mindy Kaling.

The realities of racism and class are completely outside this show’s imagining. Paxton drops out of ASU because he doesn’t feel like he “fits in.” And as we watch dozens of white, blonde students ice him out, there’s no reckoning with his biracial identity as even a potential factor. As someone who struggled to fit in at a big, predominantly white state school, this oversight feels like an erasure of five of the most difficult years of my life where racism was always the common denominator.

Later in the season, Devi visits Blair Quan, a former classmate at Princeton, and finds out that Blair failed out of her classes and now works on campus. The show is again flirting with the realities of the real world while simultaneously twisting its way out of grappling with structural inequality: working students from low-income backgrounds (who are, primarily, students of color) are far more likely to drop out of top tier institutions because they’re unsupported and made to feel like they don’t belong.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, in a time when anti-LGBTQ legislation is passing by unprecedented numbers across the country, Never Have I Ever has more or less written queerness out of its final season.

Pretty much all of the show’s LGBTQ+ characters are either absent or pushed to the sidelines.
Problematic as it was, the incisive commentary of Devi’s trope-ridden gay classmate Jonah is nowhere to be found in season four. Fabiola’s first girlfriend Eve moved to Korea at the start of season three, but Eve’s coterie of queer friends disappeared with her, never to be seen again. Fabiola’s competing paramours from season three, Aneesa and Addison, are both present in season four, but their roles are so minor, so perfunctory, it couldn’t be more obvious that the writers kept their parts because they knew they couldn’t plausibly ignore either character.

There’s one brief scene of Fabiola and Addison making out so I guess, technically speaking, there is some queer content. But Addison can’t even make it to the prom with Fabiola, which feels like a backslide from one of Fabiola’s major season two storylines when she and Eve nominated themselves to be the Queens of the Winter Dance. And while queer and trans actresses Niecy Nash and Alexandra Billings feature prominently in the season, there’s nothing in the story to explicitly suggest that their characters share their real-life identities.

Devi hugs Dr. Ryan (played by Niecy Nash). Looking fabulous as always, Niecy is looking away and smiling, while wearing a teal top with a set of silver chain necklaces. Devi is pouting and looking up at Dr. Ryan.

It’s hard not to feel like this was an intentional decision, especially compared to the side characters who do get actual plotlines in season four. The ups and downs of Eleanor and Trent’s incomprehensible relationship merits far more attention than either of these characters really deserve. This is in sharp contrast to the complete lack of development of Fabiola and Addison’s relationship given that at least two obvious opportunities present themselves: Addison is away at their first year of college, and Fabiola is primarily looking at schools on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, Devi’s classmate Eric, who was the subject of fatphobic jokes in season one, has a charming story of being trained in swimming by Paxton so he can fulfill his dream of making the cut for the boy’s swim team. This was one of the few storylines I actually really liked in season four, and I appreciated this complete turnaround of a deeply problematic story from season one. But it was also hard to see this time dedicated to athletes and the school’s athletics with nary a mention of Aneesa. Her appearances are relegated to the background with a couple of throwaway lines that she’s not stressed about college because she already got recruited to play soccer somewhere (we don’t even know where). Aneesa also occasionally hangs out with Fabiola without even a nod to their past romantic relationship.

And so, the show’s queer South Asian representation that was luke warm at best in the first place has been completely erased in the final season.

Many people will say that I’m taking a high school dramedy far too seriously. That I’m unfairly targeting Mindy Kaling, who is one of the few successful South Asian writers and actors in American media. That for all its faults Never Have I Ever will always be pulling off a feat of representation, and clearly over the seasons the writers have taken some of the criticisms seriously.

But increasingly I find myself asking in my personal life, in my professional life, and in the media I consume: what is the value of diversity for the sake of diversity? Surely, having non-white characters that counter (at least some) harmful stereotypes on the screen, having people of color in positions of power, is better than the status quo of whiteness as the norm, the standard for success. But when whiteness remains at the center of decision making, these changes become purely superficial.

The fact of the matter is that Mindy Kaling has always aspired to one thing, and only one thing: her personal success in a white world. And so she writes her stories to appease white audiences and, more importantly, conservative white media moguls, all while saying that she’s changing the narrative for Indians in American media.

I used to feel furious about this. But honestly, I just feel sad for Mindy Kaling now. The betrayal of realizing you have a seat at the table solely so that the white people who hold the purse strings can feel like they’re being “inclusive” hurts more than lying to yourself that if you just play the game well enough, you’ll eventually be able to change the rules.

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Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 53 articles for us.


  1. himani, thank you! i’ve admittedly never seen this show but have followed your incisive and complex commentary from the beginning, which has functioned not only as critique of this show but also as a far broader and more complicated meditation on the politics of brownness and Blackness in media – so appreciate the richness your commentary brings.

  2. I truly really enjoyed this season and was moved by it at the end. But I thoroughly agree on all your points. I certainly don’t watch for the progressive politics, cos I’d be waiting a long ass time. The level of non existent care shown to queerness and Blackness is such a shame because this show is so funny and poignant and could honestly be nearly perfect with just a bit more awareness in the writers room.

    • Thanks so much for reading @hellyeswinnie! A good friend of mine loved the season as well, so you’re definitely not alone. I did think some of the storylines were charming but I think it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I don’t watch TV too often because I spend way too much time analyzing the underlying politics of the shows and… that often ruins it for me…

  3. Thank you for your commentary on this show as always! I stopped keeping up with it after season 2 but have always really appreciated your writing on it.

    The “one spot at a college” plot line is interesting as someone who went to a rural high school with very little college talk who now lives in a college focused urban area. My wife has told me that she and her friends did essentially plan out who was applying where early decision and didn’t apply to places based on “giving the spot” to friends. It’s a culture I have zero experience with, but sounds like was portrayed without thinking about the bigger power structures the show is representing.

    • Thanks so much for reading @andrea_t! Yea, I went to a suburban high school with a lot of overlapping dynamics with Sherman Oaks. Granted I was applying to college almost 20 years ago at this point, but I do understand the competitiveness, zero-sum game nature of it. As always with this show, though, it comes down to the story they CHOSE to write. For instance, for all of Fabiola’s love of Robotics, the elite Tech schools are not mentioned even once: MIT, CalTech, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, RIT… the list runs on and on. And I have to believe that IRL Stanford and several of the UCs probably have better Tech programs than, say, Princeton. So why have that be the school Fabiola applied to early, you know, other than to set up this exact dynamic between Devi and Fabiola?

      So as you say, they portrayed something without (or, arguably, I would say, with) those bigger power structures in mind. But they also told a really sloppy and incoherent story in order to do it, IMO.

  4. While I only watched the first season, I’ve continued to read your excellent coverage due to how incisive and insightful it is. Hope there’s another (hopefully better) show you can turn that gaze to soon!

  5. Okay wow yes this!!! I am also a major analyzer of all media (I find it weird to not be lol), and somehow I didn’t fully catch this. I felt weird about it in my gut, and noticed the racial dynamic chosen for this plot line, but it feels enlightening and affirming to read your take. Also, I’ve been rewatching The Mindy Show and holy shit do not watch that show. Every episode is just chalk full of self-flagellating jokes about Mindy’s skin color, race, body size, etc. I also feel sad knowing that she must really have so much internalized racism and fat phobia. But damn it really feels like such a waste of a platform at this point. Also didn’t know about her brother and now this is seeming like she couldn’t even feign ignorance! Anyways, all over the place here, but thank you for this article.

  6. This is an amazing piece and I absolutely agree with your critiques. The queer characters this season were invisible, and I really liked your point about Fabiola going to Howard and there being no discussion of the implications for her. They should have hired you to write on the show!

  7. Loved your insight so much! I think teen shows often escape this kind of critical eye, even though they are perhaps the place it’s needed most.

    I will say that I didn’t find the Eric swimming storyline charming. I thought it was another excuse to laugh at a fat person trying to use their body.

    • Thanks so much for reading! I see what you’re saying about the Eric swimming story, and thanks for sharing that. I guess I was just impressed that they showed him be successful by the end without having a 90s romcom style “and now he’s super skinny in order to be successful” thrown in there, so my bar was pretty low tbh…

  8. unqualified to comment on much of this, though i was thinking about the maxim knowing better does better. wondering if Kaling chooses not to know better because it would impact her employability, sort of in the way that passing to gain opportunity avoids harm, but de facto supports it. i can imagine an argument that representation, problematic notwithstanding, nets progress because otherwise there’s just whiteness maleness straightness cisness. something reductive is easier to make true. none of which counters the disappointment, but i guess what i hope is that among the people that get a chance through Kaling projects others get opportunities to actually do better.

  9. There’s a difference between critiquing something that is genuinely harmful (e.g. in perpetuating stereotypes) and personally attacking a creator because they don’t get as political or provide the depth of representation you personally want to see. This show doesn’t represent the entire South Asian community and it’s an impossible expectation to expect it to (or to get political about every issue).

    I won’t tell you your anger, frustration, and bitterness at the system is invalid, but it’s simply misdirected at Mindy. She never claimed to speak for the entire South Asian diaspora. In fact she’s explicitly claimed the opposite—that her story is simply one among many. And that she cannot tell every Indian American story, but she can take a chance on other people and give them the opportunity to tell their own.

    Directing your frustrations at her rather than at the system that tokenizes her and the white gatekeepers and executives that determine what kinds of narratives are allowed doesn’t help change the system and is also a kind of racism and misplaced minority burden. As though she works in a vacuum and she and solely she is capable of the large scale systemic change in Hollywood and the representation you personally want to see.

    I recommend this article about the problem of the South Asian diaspora scapegoating Mindy Kaling:


    “The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?

    It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”“

    Maitreyi herself has said “Instead of first and foremost getting mad at Mindy who really works hard and does truly have my respect, why don’t we get mad at the people who make it so hard for women who look like Mindy and I to be at Mindy’s level. That’s the problem. If we had more of people who look like Mindy at her level, then I’m sure we’d have so many stories. Then I think people would be a little bit more easy on her. Not every single South Asian girl can relate to me and that’s fine. I don’t expect every single one to. That would be unrealistic…In short don’t get mad at WOC. We should look a little deeper at the people who are creating barriers.”

    • Also, I’ll note here that Fabiola & Devi’s college plotline is arguably about realizing that it’s not true that “there can only be one”, which is the kind of tokenism that drives toxic situations that pit minority groups against each other like in the SC affirmative action case. Devi learns to be happy for her friend’s success and realizes it doesn’t take away from her own. In fact she looks forward to being roommates with Fabiola at Princeton, another WOC who can also be part of her support system as one of her best friends from school. Devi isn’t immediately removed off the Princeton waitlist after Fabiola decided to attend Howard—therefore the two are not connected. She’s only removed off the Princeton waitlist once she submits her supplemental essay. Therefore it was explicitly about the strength of her application.

      The only thing I wish they had pointed out is how Ben’s admission to Columbia was a legacy admission, and not purely due to his hard work/merit as implied. That would have made clear the true disparities between the situations of two WOC (falsely) feeling they were being pitted against each other vs the rich white legacy kid who automatically got in.

      I can’t speak to Addison’s absence (I wish there had been more of them too), but I know Aneesa was mostly absent in S4 because the actress, Megan Suri was busy with other projects, including a new horror movie (It Lives Inside) where she’s playing the lead and other TV roles.

    • so, because the writer criticized Kaling for how her content affects the writer, you are criticizing the writer here for the criticism?

      which is to say, disagreeing about media is subjective, but assuming himani lacks an understanding of the greater issues is misplaced.

      • So critique of articles is suddenly off-limits now? Is this not equally a public forum?

        I simply said the writer’s personal attacks against Mindy for not getting as political as she wants or providing the specific range/depth of representation she wants to see is misdirected. One creator of color cannot change the entire system of Hollywood. Directing your anger, frustrations/bitterness solely at the one South Asian female creator in Hollywood rather than the white gatekeepers that actually run the system and determine what stories are told is racial scapegoating and exacerbates misplaced minority burden.

        I also linked to an article by a South Asian journalist saying the same things I did.


        Also here is more about minority burden:

      • Also there’s a difference between saying “I wish to see more of x, y, z representation” or “I was disappointed with the lack of further exploration of y identity” and personally attacking what you imagine to be a creator’s politics, values, and beliefs (and note Mindy is not even the only writer on the show, let alone the only person working on it behind the camera, or the one who greenlights it). I’ve seen people expressing disappointment or critique over Shonda Rhimes’ shows as well, including criticism of a lack of LGBTQ+ rep on Bridgerton. But I see nowhere near this level of personal attacks on her character, politics, values, or assumed personal beliefs as a person based on this in media outlets. This is excessive, disproportionate, and unwarranted. And I believe the level of personal attacks is because Mindy is the only well-known screenwriter/producer of her gender and ethnicity in Hollywood. And yes, it is scapegoating and racist.

        I didn’t make it personal. The writer of this article did. I’m simply saying that is misdirected and inappropriate.

        • the point is not that your views are off-limits, just noting that you are engaging in the behavior you object to because you judge the writer’s perspective as wrong. if you say ‘i disagree and feel/think this way…’, there’s room for discussion because her critique and yours of the content are subjective. but your admonition, however polite, treats the writer the way you don’t like the writer treats Kaling. i’m not actually saying that you’re wrong (i’m unqualified to assess the representation), just that your point has an inherent contradiction.

          but, it’s fair to point out that judgement, again however polite, usually feels personal to the person at whom it’s directed.

          • I’m addressing the content of the article which I find problematic, not the writer as a person. I know nothing about the writer personally and made no comments about her politics, values, or personal beliefs because I truly know nothing about them. The writer stated assumptions about Kaling’s politics, values, and personal beliefs based on her disappointment with the show’s representation, which is where I pointed out that those assumptions and character attacks are flawed and racially problematic. I don’t think our behaviors are remotely the same here. One is a critique of content, the other is assumptions about and attacks of character.

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