Heart-thumping crushes, rivalries, unsupervised parties, a volcanic cocktail of hormones — we’ve all been there, and so has a whole subgenre of popular television series. The teen high school comedy-drama, rife with hallway gaffes and under-bleacher kisses, is comfort food for those of us willing to revisit the carnival of frights that is adolescence — or imagine a totally different, fully stylized teenage experience (say, one of impossibly attractive 20-somethings acting out soap opera-worthy plotlines between Algebra and gym).
Two recent Netflix series, however, “Never Have I Ever” and “I’m Not Okay With This,” provide a different kind of comfort, particularly in these times: complex and dynamic representations of grief.
Though both shows are obviously oblivious to our current reality, of masks and Zoom calls and desperately baking bread, they serve as an apt metaphor for what we’re facing, with a pandemic causing widespread illness and death. The shows’ respective protagonists, already caught in the tangle of adolescence, itself a time of awkwardness and isolation, exhibit how grief can locate and lodge itself in the body and change how we physically move through the world.
In “Never Have I Ever,” about a girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) who is determined to have sex, get a boyfriend and become popular as soon as possible, the tragedy happens in the prologue. In the first five minutes of the first episode, we’re told that Devi’s father had a heart attack and died during her school concert — a week later, her legs stop working.
The cause isn’t medical, but clearly psychosomatic. Her salvation comes three months later in the form of Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the essential hot jock love interest. Like Jesus — say, if Jesus were a high schooler in California — the sight of Paxton alone miraculously cures Devi’s paralysis, and she becomes intent on attracting his interest.
Throughout the season, Devi spirals through adolescent feelings whose intensity is exacerbated by her willful avoidance of her grief. When Devi’s therapist asks her whether she wants to speak about her father, Devi brushes her off, declaring that she instead wants to focus on losing her virginity.
But neither she, nor the show, ever forgets her grief, which not only debilitated her, but also literally haunts her. She imagines seeing her father in the kitchen and on the living room couch, and at one point convinces herself that a coyote she encounters is her father reincarnated. (This coyote is not actually her father, which she realizes when the animal mauls her at a party.)
For all of the show’s lighthearted humor and formulaic plot setups, its emotional core is distinctive: The defining dynamic is not Devi’s relationship with her friends or boys, but her relationship with her father’s death.
While “Never Have I Ever” adheres to the real world, albeit with some quirky left turns, “I’m Not Okay With This,” based on the comic book by Charles Forsman, punctuates the everyday trials of adolescence with actual supernatural terror. Like Devi, the protagonist, Sydney Novak, struggles to deal with the death of her father while also navigating a contentious relationship with her mother, normal high school worries and her incipient sexual awakening. But in dealing with her overwhelming torrent of emotions, she also has a much different kind of awakening, of the Marvel or DC variety.
Sydney discovers she is telekinetic, but her powers manifest in violent bursts of feeling, which crack walls, mow down trees and worse. While investigating the reason behind her father’s death, by suicide, she pieces together that he had the same supernatural abilities. Comforted by the fact that she isn’t totally alone in her experience and yet disheartened by her father’s inability to live with his powers, she is shadowed by his absence. But also like Devi, Sydney encounters a more literal shadow, or a ghost, some dark figure who stalks her.
Both shows are, for the most part, light fare, perfect quarantine viewing, but they reimagine grief in a way that’s fitting to how the coronavirus has changed our collective conception of the body. Because in many ways, the pandemic has turned the body into a symbol of grief, and made it irreconcilable with the vision of life as we knew it.
The body is, after all, the arena for this terrifying new disease. Global discourse now consists largely of reports of mortality rates, guides on how to reimagine socialization, explainers on the various ways Covid-19 can make itself known in the body.
We’ve been urged to make our bodies alienated and distant, positioned at least six feet apart as we live our lives mostly confined to our homes. We’ve heard countless stories about sick bodies in makeshift, pop-up medical facilities and dead ones parked in trucks outside of hospitals and nursing homes, waiting for interment.
It isn’t just the dead who are changed; those left behind then carry with them the trauma. In “Never Have I Ever” and “I’m Not Okay With This,” both protagonists are offered grief journals by adults concerned with how they’re avoiding dealing with their losses. A journal is a small first step but only a paltry comfort, unable to offset such a monumental tragedy. Devi and Sydney, unable to engage with their grief mentally and emotionally, encounter it through their bodies and are transformed by it, in ways that both find devastating, frightening and embarrassing.
For months Devi can’t move on her own and afterward is self-conscious of how people stare at her when she’s back on her feet. Sydney fears being around people in stressful social situations — pretty much every high school interaction — and, though already an outsider, feels even more distanced from her peers because of her newly developed abilities.
Both Devi and Sydney attempt to reach out in the way that makes most sense to them: intimacy, sex being the closest approximation to a cure for how their bodies have changed in response to their mourning. Having lost a sense of agency in the physical transformation grief brought them, they seek to regain control of their bodies in the direction that adolescent hormones so often point.
Right now we face our own particular griefs, and though we may not wake up with paralysis or the power to move things with our minds, it isn’t such a stretch to consider how we may internalize our losses. The physical symptoms of grief are well-documented: nausea, fatigue, headaches, muscle weakness, shortness of breath. Perhaps it’s as simple as the way we walk down the street, reflexively moving away from one person or another, perhaps slouching, muscles tense, jaws tight, or everything slack. We may not have Devi and Sydney’s ghosts, but we are certainly haunted by memories of the lives we knew before the coronavirus struck.
At the end of the shows, one girl has successfully surfaced from beneath her wave of grief, and the other has flown headfirst into a fresh catastrophe, only to finally come face to face with the shadow she fears. Both survive but are absolutely, indelibly, changed.
The post Now on Netflix: Portraits of Grief With Unplanned Relevance appeared first on New York Times.