Within days of each other, Netflix and Hulu recently released two new titles… actually, Netflix and Hulu often release titles within days of each other, as the streaming wars faucet can never be turned off (how else to explain The Big Show Show?), but I would like to talk about two new shows in particular, Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and Hulu’s Normal People. They are both extremely good teen-focused series, one based on a New York Times best-selling book and the other on a… popular drinking game (the “Never Have I Ever” of it all is mostly a device for the episode titles) that adults can enjoy, too.
But which show is the right show for you? Let’s break it down, using eight “if” scenarios.
– If you, an adult, want to watch something alongside an actual teen
You should probably steer clear of Normal People. Here are some of the headlines that it has inspired:
I would not recommend watching the show with your child. Never Have I Ever, meanwhile, is perfect for the entire family. It tells the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (played by the fantastic Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who lives with her mother (Poorna Jagannathan) and cousin (Richa Moorjani) in California. After recovering from being paralyzed for three months following the death of her father (Sendhil Ramamurthy, mostly seen in flashbacks), Devi does normal teen things, like crushing on hunky Paxton (Darren Barnet) and feuding with her academic rival Ben (Jaren Lewison). The series goes through the beats of dozens of high school-set shows and John Hughes movies that came before it, but it finds clever new tweaks on tropes with a diverse cast. I would gladly watch Never Have I Ever, and not Sixteen Candles, with my teenager.
– If you want a story that takes place over years, not months
Spoiler alert for Normal People…
….I didn’t know about the time-hopping conceit when I started watching, and it didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the show. It follows Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two students at a secondary school in Ireland; they’re both smart, but they travel in different circles: he’s the athletically-gifted hunk, she’s an outspoken loner. They’re connected by his mom working as her family’s housekeeper — and also they’re both attracted to each other, and begin having near-constant sex in their senior year. But when he refuses to stick up for Marianne in public, and actively chooses to ignore her existence when they’re outside of the bedroom, they fall apart, only for a time-jump between episodes, where they both attend the same university. Had the show stayed with Marianne and Connell in secondary (high) school the entire time, the plot would have grown stale; moving the setting to university (college) keeps it invigorating.
– If it’s been too long since you’ve listened to Robyn
The winner: Never Have I Ever. Any amount of time without Robyn is too long, btw.
– If it’s been too long since you’ve listened to Imogen Heap
If a song becomes forever associated with a TV show, other shows should be forbidden from using it. I’m talking “Don’t Stop Believin'” on The Sopranos, “With or Without You” on The Americans, “The Final Countdown” on Arrested Development. I’m still mad about Dexter using “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” which Lost already laid claim to, and that was seven years ago. The only exception to this rule: if the song is being used ironically or for parody, like when the Lonely Island used Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” to spoof The OC on SNL. The song should have been retired from all soundtracks forever… and yet, it pops up in the second episode of Normal People. It’s very distracting, even if it cuts off before the part that Jason Derulo probably thinks he made famous. If I hear “Hide and Seek” in a show, I had better see Marissa shooting Trey or Andy Samberg shooting Bill Hader, and nothing else, especially not a montage of Connell and Marianne neglecting each other in school and having steamy car-sex in private. No thank you!
Good song, though.
– If you’re looking for a show with 30-minute episodes
It’s a tie! Both shows are regularly under 30 minutes, and Never Have I Ever is only 10 episodes, while Normal People clocks in at 12 episodes. There’s no streaming bloat here, unlike 13 Reasons Why, which is like Never and Normal, except it’s unwatchable.
– If you’re a fan of The Office
Never Have I Ever was created by Mindy Kaling, of The Office fame, and Lang Fisher, a former writer for The Mindy Project, and it feels like the show both Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Lahiri would have obsessed over as a teen. It’s up there among the best post-Office projects from the show’s core cast, alongside Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), Silicon Valley (Zach Woods), and hopefully Space Force, which finds Steve Carell re-teaming with The Office co-creator Greg Daniels (that show premieres later this month).
– If you’re looking for something sweet and delightful
The best word I can think of to describe Never Have I Ever: smitten. As in, I am smitten with Never Have I Ever. It tackles real issues, like feeling like an imposter within your own culture and the confusing pains of being a teenager (including how they can be wonderful almost-adults one second and monstrous jerks the next), but it never dips into melodrama or takes itself too seriously. The whole series (with the exception of one standout episode) is narrated by cranky tennis legend John McEnroe, for crying out loud. If you watch Never Have I Ever, expect two things: 1) to be delighted, and 2) to become way too invested in a love triangle (twist, I’m Team Devi’s hot dad).
– If you’re looking for something kinda sad and tender and horny
I know I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: Normal People is a very horny show. Devi is horny, too, but it’s an awkward horniness, the kind that’s easy to look back at as an adult and laugh about. Meanwhile, the Normal People leads are frequently naked, and there’s one scene where, after Connell does something sh*tty to Marianne, his mom yells at him, “And you don’t think maybe you should have asked her, seeing as how you f*ck her every day after school?” With all due respect to Comedy Bang Bang, it is that kind of show. But it’s not horny how Skins was horny; it’s horny in the way Barry Jenkins’ movies are horny, where the emotions between the characters are uncomfortably and relatably real, like you’re watching a private moment between real-life partners, not naked actors being paid for our enjoyment (did I just describe porn?). The sex scenes are too vulnerable to be hot, but they are horny as hell.
Or, here’s an idea: watch them both. Done!