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.
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.
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.