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Arts & Culture

Showing Strong Character in Netflix Hit

Three Terps Appear in New Series ‘Never Have I Ever’

By Annie Krakower

Screengrab of Poorna Jagannathan '96 sitting at the dinner table on Netflix show "Never Have I Ever"

Photos of Jagannathan and Shapiro courtesy of Netflix; Young headshot via IMDb

Poorna Jagannathan ’96 (center) plays smart and well-meaning Nalini on the new Netflix series "Never Have I Ever." Adam Shapiro ’02 (below) plays the appropriately named history teacher, Mr. Shapiro, and Adriyah Marie Young ’13 (bottom) appears in one episode as high schooler Carley.

While filming the hit new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” Poorna Jagannathan ’96 had her own take on the title: Never have I ever felt more at home on a set.

The actress, who co-stars in the comedy created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, contributed insights from her own experiences as an Indian American and a mother as the show follows the angst and antics of a high school sophomore desperate for a boyfriend and struggling with her father’s death. One of three Terps in the series—Adam Shapiro ’02 and Adriyah Marie Young ’13 also appear—Jagannathan helps create what critics call a “fresh take” on a coming-of-age story, dedicated to developing complex, diverse characters.

Adam Shapiro ’02 plays a history teacher on the Netflix show "Never Have I Ever"“It’s certainly the most empowered I’ve ever been on a set,” said Jagannathan, an immigrant herself whose father was an Indian diplomat. “The show was set within my cultural context, so anything from props, to costume, to food—my opinion helped shape how things came together. And I’ve never had that feeling before on a set.”

Jagannathan, who studied journalism with a minor in theater at the University of Maryland, didn’t get her hopes up when she first heard about Kaling’s casting call. With acting experience in dramas like “The Night Of” and “Big Little Lies,” she was sure “some actress with much better comedic chops” would land the role of intelligent, well-meaning Nalini, who’s frequently at odds with her teenage daughter, Devi.

But once she did book the role—a surprise and one of the happiest days of her career, she said—she drew from personal experience to create a relatable character as she badgers Devi to be careful with her blessed textbook, drags her to a Hindu festival and compares her to her successful and beautiful older cousin.

Adriyah Marie Young ’13 headshot“There’s something that many South Asian parents do—it’s a combination of hyperbole and sarcasm mixed with a healthy dose of passive aggressiveness,” said Jagannathan, who has a 13-year-old son. “I always had a handle on the character’s timing and pacing—the quips are very cultural and familiar. I grew up around that sense of humor; I was parented with that sense of humor; I parent with that same sense of humor.”

But beyond the comedic aspects, Jagannathan credits Kaling, Fisher and the writers for pushing beyond the immigrant stereotypes. Viewers can see Nalini’s grief and perspective as she navigates single parenthood.

“I'm really grateful the show gives Nalini a lot of depth and goes beyond the trope of the strict, demanding Indian mom. Her losses, her pain, her struggles are all portrayed so beautifully,” she said. “I think when shows have authenticity and specificity to them, they resonate deeply. The family is immediately recognizable, even though they may be so different from yours.”

That helped the show leap to Netflix’s top 10 list after its release on the platform in late April. It’s hovering at a “certified fresh” 96% critics score and a 90% audience score on review site Rotten Tomatoes, with viewers praising standout performances and smart writing despite some predictable moments. Fans are calling for a second season.

“At the beginning, this is a raucous high school comedy,” said Shapiro, who plays the appropriately named history teacher, Mr. Shapiro. “But then it sneaks up on you that ultimately, it’s a story about grief and a love story and the coming together of a mother and daughter.”

Although the show’s three Terps were never all on set at the same time—Shapiro appears in eight episodes, and fellow School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies graduate Young appears in one as Carley, a friend of Devi’s nemesis’s girlfriend—they all appreciated those layers that came through in the series, and they hope to see more shows with diverse, well-rounded casts and characters.

“An American story doesn’t just look one way,” Young said. “It’s great to see that Hollywood’s moving forward and highlighting its many colors.”

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