In Defense of the Jewish Love Interest in 'Never Have I Ever' – Kveller
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In Defense of the Jewish Love Interest in ‘Never Have I Ever’

Ben Gross is a win for Jewish representation.

Image via Netflex, assets via Canva

The following article contains major spoilers for the fourth and final season of “Never Have I Ever,” now available on Netflix.

“Never Have I Ever” gave us a lot in its four seasons on Netflix: an intelligent, overachieving, messy hothead of a protagonist that you can’t help but root for; a moving exploration of grief; charming narration from John McEnroe; a bunch of lovable characters; and a Jewish love interest. Said Jewish love interest, Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), has been a divisive character, with some viewers feeling that he is a Jewish stereotype or an asshole who shouldn’t be with Devi. But now that Netflix released the show’s fourth and final season, we can look at his character arc as a whole, and it’s time to rule that this complex character is a win for Jewish representation.

Ben starts the series as Devi Vishwakumar’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) nemesis, rivals for the best grades. In the pilot, Devi, a sophomore, comes up with a plan for her and her best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), to become cool. Instead of dealing with her trauma over the unexpected and sudden death of her father at her orchestra concert in the spring of her freshman year, Devi puts her energy into trying to lose her virginity to the popular Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). As the series progresses, Ben becomes more of a friend to Devi, and eventually a love interest.

In love triangles, usually one of the options is a much better choice than the other, but “Never Have I Ever” is a rare show where the love triangle works. Not just because a popular falling for a nerd and enemies-to-lovers are two of the best tropes, but also because Paxton and Ben are both worthwhile options. They each offer Devi something different. Paxton’s chill nature balances Devi out, and he has a strong character arc of his own. Ben and Devi are two sides of the same coin, and they understand each other in a way others don’t because of their similarities. 

In the end, Devi ends up with Ben. Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve always been Team Ben for Devi. As much as I love Paxton, I think he and Devi are better as close friends. But I’m not here to gloat about that. Even if Devi had ended up with Paxton, someone else or no one, I would have been happy with Ben’s journey and portrayal on the show.

There have been some valid criticisms of the Jewish characters in “Never Have I Ever,” but Ben, like Devi, has never been just one thing. He can sometimes be problematic, like when he came up with the nickname “the UN” (“unfuckable nerds”) for Devi, Fabiola and Eleanor, and yes, he does have some traits that can be seen as Jewish stereotypes. He’s rich and an overachiever who gets good grades. He has a sensitive stomach. But because Lewison is actually Jewish, Ben doesn’t come off as a caricature as can sometimes happen when non-Jewish actors play Jewish characters. Though Ben is tightly wound, he is able to loosen up and have fun. He is a nerd, but he goes to parties. He even sometimes gets high, after forming an unlikely friendship with repeat senior Trent (Benjamin Norris). In season three, he takes art, thinking it will be an easy A, but when he struggles with it, he applies himself with the help of a tutor and learns to appreciate and find comfort in drawing. Also, he constantly has girls fighting over him. It’s a bit insulting that the adults are always shocked about this, but it’s not often that Jewish men are shown as desirable in this way.

Since the show is mostly from Devi’s perspective (except for the Ben-centric episodes narrated appropriately by Andy Samberg, whose Jake Peralta in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is another example of a complex Jewish character who is constantly improving himself, but I digress), most of Ben’s journey on the show is in relation to Devi. Although the love triangle is a big part of the show, “Never Have I Ever” is really about Devi coming to terms with the death of her father, and Ben is a part of that (as is Paxton, as Devi tells him at his graduation). When Devi’s mom wants to scatter her father’s ashes on his birthday, it’s Ben who tells Devi she will regret it if she doesn’t go. It’s Ben who gets Fab and Eleanor to make up with Devi and convince her to go. And it’s Ben who drives her to Malibu. Not that Devi ever needs a man to save her. She does a lot of work on herself and she comes to Ben’s rescue often, too. They help and push each other and make each other better. 

And that’s another thing about Ben — he’s a good friend when it matters. When Devi applies early decision to her dream school, Princeton, and is deferred, Ben is the only one to truly understand what a blow that is to her because he had the same drive to get into Columbia, and he doesn’t sugarcoat how much it sucks. When he gets in early to Columbia, he doesn’t rub her face in it. When she is later rejected from every Ivy and waitlisted for Princeton, he doesn’t judge, and convinces her to write the essay that could help her get in. “If anyone gets how badly you wanted to go to Princeton and how much you killed yourself to try to make that happen, it’s me,” he tells her. One of the most fun parts of Ben and Devi’s relationship is their banter and insults, but he never tears her down when she is hurt.

Ben is a teenage boy, so even with all that growth, he can still be an asshole. After Devi loses her virginity to him, he doesn’t handle it well, asking if he should call her an Uber and then ignoring her all summer after some bad advice from basketball player Dwight Howard. But at the start of the new school year, Ben actually apologizes for ghosting her and admits he was embarrassed because it was his first time and he thought it was bad. Another great thing about “Never Have I Ever” is that it shows that teenagers having sex for the first time is usually awkward, not sexy as television too often depicts. Devi wonders if she should be having sex like how they do on “Euphoria.” Not that everything in “Never Have I Ever” is realistic, but it offers teens who are watching more responsible expectations for sex. After his apology, Ben tells Devi that they shouldn’t be together because they’re insecure and competitive and always manage to hurt each other, which shows maturity, and Devi shows progress too by accepting it.

It was smart to end the show after high school, giving Devi a happy ending of the boyfriend and the dream school and not dragging out the series through college years, but I’m really going to miss these characters. In McEnroe’s final narration, he does say that he is signing off “for now,” so there is hope that we’ll see Devi — and Ben Gross — again someday.

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