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Mindy Kaling gives John Hughes a run for his money in Netflix's 'Never Have I Ever'

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

As a writer, Mindy Kaling has yet to receive the accolades bestowed on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino or "Fleabag" mastermind Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But her time will come.

What the heck. Let's make that time now.

"Never Have I Ever," which she co-created with Lang Fisher, is reminiscent of the adorable coming-of-age comedies John Hughes used to make, but with an awareness that high schools aren't just populated with pasty white students.

It's a version of "Sixteen Candles" in which Long Duk Dong is the hero rather than the butt of the joke.

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In "Never," which drops Monday on Netflix, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is a 15-year-old brainiac who prays to the Hindu gods that she gets invited to a party with popular kids, alcohol and hard drugs. Be careful what you wish for.

Over the course of 10 episodes, Devi convinces everyone that she slept with the school stud, a lie that costs her the trust of her gal pals, a strict mother and her school rival, Ben (Jaren Lewison), who's even lonelier than she is.

"My life is like 'Home Alone,'" says Ben after his parents abandon him on his 16th birthday. "But if the parents realized they left Kevin behind and decided to stay in Paris."

There's lots of references to old comedies with scenes you've seen a gazillion times before: Devi falling into the swimming pool during a kegger, wise words from the hip therapist, the hunk who turns out to have a sensitive side, the too-cool-for-school teacher.

But Kaling and her writers get teenagers better than Hughes ever did.

Her characters don't really want to lose their virginity; they just want to talk about it. Sharing one's secrets, whether it's being gay or fantasizing about having hospital sex like they do on "Grey's Anatomy," is a lot more desirable than actually hopping in the sack.

There's also a keen understanding of what it's like to be second-generation immigrants who keep one sneaker planted in their heritage while the other one dangles over American pop culture.

 Mindy Kaling attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, California. (Presley Ann/Getty Images for Vanity Fair/TNS)

Kaling, who is of Indian descent, makes sure that a Hindu ritual is underscored by U2's "Beautiful Day." A visiting cousin is torn between watching Bollywood movies or bingeing "Riverdale."

And the narrator telling Devi's story is none other than tennis bad boy John McEnroe, who keeps getting distracted with tales about his epic matches with Bjorn Borg. It's the smartest piece of voice-over casting since "Arrested Development" recruited Ron Howard.

This isn't the first time Kaling has shown off her skills. As a writer/performer on "The Office," she was responsible for some of the sitcom's most memorable episodes, including the Emmy-nominated "Niagara," in which Jim and Pam get married.

"The Mindy Project," which she created and starred in for six seasons, was quickly followed by her revision of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," one of the most underappreciated sitcoms of 2019. Both are streaming on Hulu.

Last year, she also penned Amazon Prime's "Late Night," giving Emma Thompson her best role in years.

But "Never" may finally be the series where she gets her due, if only because audiences today seem to be craving teen rom-coms seen through a girl's eyes.

Kaling hasn't dethroned Aaron Sorkin as the sassiest scriptwriter in Hollywood — but she's getting closer.