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August 22, 2022 11:20 am

Netflix Comedy Has a Jewish Problem, Indeed

avatar by Alan Zeitlin


Jewish actor Jared Lewison as Ben Gross and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan have a love/hate relationship in “Never Have I Ever,” but one scene involving his stomach issues goes too far. Photo: Netflix.

I’m not a mathematical wizard, but something doesn’t add up.

When Netflix first aired “Never Have I Ever,” friends asked me if I thought the writing for the Jewish character, Ben Gross, played by the very talented Jewish actor Jared Lewison, was messed up. They alerted me to Mira Fox’s article in The Forward. In her well-written, May 8, 2000, article, titled “Mindy Kaling’s hit teen comedy has a serious Jewish problem,” she correctly pointed out that Ben is a “wildly rich nerdy suck-up” dating Shira, a Jewish American Princess, not out of love, but to further his popularity.

Supposedly based on Kaling’s childhood, the show features superb acting by Maitreyi Ramakrishan, who plays Devi, a charismatic and wonderfully sarcastic Indian-American student who wants to be seen as cool and assimilated by also clings to her roots. The show, for the most part is excellent, and the banter of Devi and Ben is my favorite part. Ramakrishan deserves an award for her performance as she delivers a character that is both magnetic and sympathetic.

So why wasn’t I bothered by the Jewish stereotypes? Would I rather every Jewish character in every film and be nuanced? Of course. I’d also like people to follow the speed limit. The truth is that asking to remove all stereotypes is like trying to dry up all the tears of the world with a paper towel. My two questions are always: Is it possible? Is it funny?

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In the new and third season, Ben is obsessed with getting into Columbia University. Did I know students obsessed with getting in there? Yes. Did I know students who dated people just because they were attractive and would further their social status? Yes. Did I know students with rich absentee fathers? Yes. In addition, Ben has good qualities and Devi is interested in him. In this new season, he competes for her (albeit more passively than other seasons) with the good-looking cool guy, Paxton Hall Yoshida, played with the proper slickness by Darren Barnet, and Nirdesh, who is nicknamed Des, a handsome Indian student played by Anirudh Pisharody. Ben helps Paxton with his college essay and selflessly provides Devi with crucial information that he overhears, even though she previously cheated on him. Cool. Ben hooks up with a female student he finds unintelligent because he is bored. Not so cool, but that stuff happens.

The great narrator John McEnroe has his job taken over by Jewish actor Andy Samberg to explain in Episode 6 that Ben “has no chill.” He’s taking more classes than he’s allowed to. I don’t get how that’s possible, but whatever. Since he has no lunch period, he eats meat sticks. We’re pushing it, but I’m still holding on. He calls a female college guidance counselor “baby.” Now I’m almost at the breaking point until the final blow: Ben has stomach pains and when Paxton takes him to the hospital and the doctor (whose residency Ben, despite being in immense pain, asks abou) and Ben casually says the last time he had a bowel movement was…wait for it…16 days! 16 days!!!!

So this is a straight A student, ready for an Ivy League school, and he doesn’t think it’s a big deal he hasn’t had a bowel movement for 16 days. NOT POSSIBLE! How about lactose intolerance? Gluten intolerance? I have both.

Paxton marvels, while a scan is shown that Ben is literally full of you know what. The doctor informs Ben that there is “…impacted fecal matter in your colon, most likely caused by stress and a poor diet.” They have to perform surgery.

Most of the writing is on point. So what gives here?

“It’s virtually impossible to go 16 days without passing anything,” said Dr. Chaim Abbitan, a gastroenterologist based in Great Neck, Long Island. “On occasion, we do have patients who report they have not had bowel movements for long periods, but upon further examination of their history, it becomes clear they have passed pellets or liquid. You can’t go that long — it doesn’t make sense.”

He said a high school student with no mental deficiencies would certainly go to the hospital sooner than 16 days and would not think things were normal.

One might say, “but it’s just a show!” Again, is it possible? No. Is it funny? No. Is it cool that only the Jewish character is so obsessed with grades that he forgets one of the most important functions in life? No. I like to let the players play, but there are times you have to call a foul.

The show is highly entertaining and offers characters at every stage of life. Devi’s mother, Nalini, lost her husband and deeply loves her daughter. Poorna Jagannathan grounds the show with her fine performance in this role. There’s also the humorous and strict grandmother, played with great gusto by Rankita Chakravarty.

Perhaps Fox and my friends saw the writing on the wall. It should have stayed there and not in the script for this one scene. The actors and the viewers deserve better from a show that is so well done with all of its other characters. “Never Have I Ever” is an excellent binge-worthy series that greatly hits the mark on representation needed for many characters not seen enough on screen. It’s too bad that never had Ben ever heard of prunes.

The author is a writer based in New York.

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