By Adam Katz
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So here’s why I like Never Have I Ever. I’ll start by saying that I’m a Jewish person who is in a relationship with an Indian woman—actually a Tamil woman, so, not far off from the main character of this show, except for the technicality of being born and raised half a world away.
Naturally the Ms. and I got to talking about this show, which we have both seen, and she asked: “Are you Team Paxton or Team Ben?” I had not been informed that there were teams, and took a moment to respond.
Finally I said: “Are you seriously asking me whether I’m rooting for or against the nerdy Jewish guy who’s infatuated with an Indian woman?”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “And whose dad is a lawyer?”
“So tell,” she rejoined. “I’m team Paxton. Are you Team Paxton or Team Ben?”
Anyway. What is this show good for besides fueling my banter with my friend of friends, whom Covid has kept 7,000 miles distant for far too long?
Well, it’s a good example of how to take typical sitcom structures and squeeze the racism and sexism out of them. Take the main character, Devi. She is an overachieving nerd with no athletic interests, much less prowess, and magnificent anger issues. Also she keeps trying and failing to be sexually promiscuous.
But whom did they get to narrate her story? Tennis star John McEnroe. Most sitcoms don’t have a narrator at all. This one does. And it’s John Frigging McEnroe. Why?
His selection appears to be a commentary on who is allowed to be angry, stupid, and promiscuous. Athletes are allowed to be all of those things. A young girl of color in her sophomore year in high school is not. Until now. So putting him in her sitcom somehow makes her more relatable to people who are used to forgiving sports stars their ‘eccentricities’ (read: personality disorders).
I’m naturally drawn to sympathize with young people who make terrible decisions and have anger issues, because, duh, I own a goddamn mirror. But not everyone is willing to cut a sitcom protagonist that much slack; especially one who doesn’t look like them. Fortunately, my boy John McEnroe, who I hear is a very good tennis player (my grandfather liked tennis. I once watched Roger Federer knock the stuffing out of Andy Roddick, but that was the extent of my engagement) is killing it in his second career as the narrator of the fictional events in the life of a fictional girl. He establishes his role early on—in the first episode, in fact, in the scene that features the main character, Devi, breaking a window with her textbook. His voice-over explains in soothing baritone: “this is how us hotheads boil over.” The subtext has become text: if you don’t blink when John McEnroe or Tommy Lasorda throws a Gatorade-cooler or bawls out an umpire, you don’t get to blink now.
Despite being Jewish and thus growing up in the shadow of a traumatic past (one grandmother left Germany in 1939; one great-grandfather left Russia in 1902 just ahead of the angry mobs) I have rarely experienced racism directly (rarely, but not never). But I’ve heard people say some questionable things. I have probably said some myself before I was old enough to know better (and, more likely than not, after, as well). In any case, I see the value, no, the necessity, of untangling these old knots, and I appreciate watching a show that tries to do just that.
As this article was about to go to press, Erika pointed out that there was some discourse over whether the depiction of Ben is anti-Semitic. I just want to nip this in the bud. If he feels like a person, he’s not an anti-Semitic depiction, and Ben definitely feels like a person. Maybe it’s because, growing up in a well-off, predominantly Jewish suburb, I knew about 30 Bens.
Anyway, whatever else it may do, I appreciate a show that tries; so many shows do not. So goddamn many. Anyway, here’s a “Big Cat, Little Cat.” Enjoy!
Big Cat, Little Cat
Description: Two cats are sitting on a bed. The big, orange cat on the left takes up about half of the total frame; the little, grey on the right, less than a quarter. The little grey looks pensively out of the frame and asks: “Big Cat, when you wake up, do you remember your dreams?” Big cat smiles down and answers: “Well. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I’ve always wanted to poop outside the box.”