"Never Have I Ever": Jeff Garlin becomes a problematic distraction in the show's finale run

For reasons one can't fathom, Jeff Garlin shows up as a love interest in a comedy featuring and about women

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 8, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Comedian Jeff Garlin performing onstage during the International Myeloma Foundation 10th Annual Comedy Celebration at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on November 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for International Myeloma Foundation)
Comedian Jeff Garlin performing onstage during the International Myeloma Foundation 10th Annual Comedy Celebration at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on November 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for International Myeloma Foundation)

In the same way that you can't unsee a thing, it is difficult to unknow something terrible once you've been made aware of it. Maybe the details of the awfulness fuzz up over time; that's normal. Generally, though, if a public persona becomes associated with substantiated reports of misconduct, mentioning their name pings a Google alert in my brain, followed by consulting the nearest Internet-enabled device.

But when such a person appears in a context where I'd least expect them – where, by all rights, they don't need to be – that is a real smack to the old gob. This is a very long way of asking a question concerning "Never Have I Ever": Why is Jeff Garlin, of all people, in the fourth and final season?

To specify why this is jarring, here's a reminder of what "Never Have I Ever" is about, and where the third season left us.

Never Have I EverMaitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi and Jaren Lewison as Ben Gross in "Never Have I Ever" (Courtesy of Netflix)

The lithe comedy follows the misadventures of the nerd-turned-semi-popular high schooler Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her close friends Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young). We get to know them shortly after Devi's father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) died suddenly, leaving Devi devastated and at emotional loggerheads with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan).

Over its run, Devi and Nalini's relationship evolves into one of an understanding but no-nonsense mother and an overachieving daughter. As the story progresses they move through their grief together and singularly. Devi also comes to terms with being in the shadow of her pageant-queen gorgeous cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), while questing to realize her teenage dream, which basically consists of going to sick parties and banging the hottest guy in school.

She comes close in previous seasons when she lands her white whale of crushes, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), but ends up scoring her first real "bang" with her academic nemesis turned friend turned who-even-knows-anymore Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison).

There is no way that the producers of "Never Have I Ever" weren't aware of Garlin's history.

And while the story has traveled a winding path paved with revelatory moments for Devi and her friends, along with Nalini and Kamala, it constantly circles back to the challenges of grieving and figuring out how to go on after losing someone you love.

It's a relief to see Devi, Eleanor and Fabiola exit the story in a place of awakening. And this makes "Never Have I Ever" a refreshing addition to TV and culture, in that it has built a teenage coming-of-age story that centers girls on the foundations of an old-school sex comedy.

Never Have I EverRanjita Chakravarty as Nirmala in "Never Have I Ever" (Lara Solanki/Netflix)

The main goal that the trio set for themselves in their long-ago sophomore year was to lose their virginity. As of their senior year, that mission has been accomplished, without shaming or via situations they didn't control or regret. Even Nalini, Kamala and, as of this season, Devi and Kamala's grandmother Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty) have claimed their right to get it from the men they want.

Nirmala reveals this in the second episode of the new season when Kamala returns home early from work to find Grandma in the kitchen being cagey. When she overhears a man clearing his throat, the jig is up.

"Kamala, please meet my white boyfriend," Nirmala says nervously, and out from his hiding place behind the kitchen island pops Garlin, playing the role of Len.

This look at the final 10 episodes of Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher's comedy is brought to you in part by "Burn It Down," Maureen Ryan's freshly released book about the entertainment industry's pervasive culture of toxicity and enablement. (In the interest of disclosure, Ryan is a close friend of mine.)

Garlin isn't the most prominent figure in the book, but his story stands out as an example of networks and studios enabling unwelcome workplace behavior from certain parties. Garlin was the subject of three human resources investigations by Sony Pictures Television, the producing studio behind the ABC family comedy "The Goldbergs." At issue were multiple complaints that Garlin allegedly "engaged in a pattern of verbal and physical conduct on set that made people uncomfortable," as Ryan originally reported in a 2021 interview with the actor for Vanity Fair, initiated by Garlin calling Ryan.

He parted ways with the show shortly afterward. But Garlin still remains part of the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" cast, on which he has an executive producer credit.

After the Vanity Fair article, Ryan reveals in an excerpt from her book published Wednesday on Salon that another source reached out to refute his claims that he was universally beloved by the "Goldbergs" crew. As for his work record on "Curb," Ryan writes:

What follows are allegations that three sources with knowledge of events at "Curb Your Enthusiasm" made to me in 2021 and 2022: that Garlin used demeaning, graphic, sexual language in the workplace; that his behavior was investigated by HBO; and that those investigations touched on the harassment or mistreatment of people connected to the show. I also heard that Garlin (an actor and executive producer on "Curb") requested the names of people who had complained about him and that it was not unusual for him to behave in an inappropriate, unprofessional, or vindictive fashion.

Garlin has consistently denied committing any wrongdoing while working on either production.

Ryan's book just hit bookstores, and I don't expect the average person to have read it or to be cognizant of this additional information. But the TV industry is a small place where people talk; plus, that Vanity Fair article was available to readers nationwide when it came out.

There is no way that the producers of "Never Have I Ever" weren't familiar with Garlin's history with "The Goldbergs." Indeed, Kaling's prominence in comedy circles all but ensures she's heard something about these "Curb" allegations.

Casting him as Nirmala's love interest, therefore, is a conscious choice. It trusts most of the audience knows Garlin's work better than his workplace reputation. And that assumption is probably correct. (I was also reminded that Season 2 initially employed Chrissy Teigen's as Paxton's inner narrator until tweets resurfaced that allegedly showed her cyberbullying reality TV star Courtney Stodden. Production replaced her with model Gigi Hadid, who returns in the fourth season.)

If you've read or heard about these reports, Garlin's participation in the series-wrapping season of "Never Have I Ever" is, at the very least, distracting.

But if you've read or heard about these reports, his participation in the series-wrapping season of "Never Have I Ever" is, at the very least, distracting. Even when he's not onscreen, you can't unsee him. And like Devi's internal narration, courtesy of John McEnroe, it may be difficult to quiet the inside voice asking why Netflix or the show's executive producers thought that, in the larger scheme of things, this was a perfectly fine and flawless choice.

Let's be clear – contrary to what some people may believe, I'm not saying that Garlin should never work again. He may have even embarked on a path of contrition that includes acknowledging his offensive behavior and making amends. He may be doing his best, moving forward, to not have it recur.

The problem is, we don't know if that's the case. Therefore, and hear me out, maybe it's not the best idea to have a guy alleged to have suggested to a co-worker that she show up wearing only panties play a silver fox in a gentle comedy about teenage girls and women. (Again, Garlin denies this allegation.)

Never Have I EverLee Rodriguez as Fabiola Torres, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi and Ramona Young as Eleanor Wong in "Never Have I Ever" (Courtesy of Netflix)

Is this some sort of stealth image overhaul? Len is such a sweet guy to Nirmala, who he awkwardly nicknames Nirmy, that Kamala immediately suspects he may be conning her. And the plot goes out of its way to bolster that mistrust through a series of worrisome conversation snippets that she overhears. I won't reveal whether Kamala's correct beyond hinting that this is a season where, among other lessons gained by experience, Devi learns to clock the difference between a sexy bad boy and a dirtbag while understanding that either type is at least good for a hot lay.  

Why did the people who make "Never Have I Ever" fail to predict we might draw thematic connections between Devi's and Nirmala's subplots? Such thoughts, no matter how fleeting, pull our attention from fully appreciating Devi's efforts to grapple with her explosive anger and appreciate the ways it sabotages her, or her evolution to understanding that her self-involvement gets in the way of her happiness and that of those she cares about.

These are stories I want to invest in, and it's irritating to have the alleged Garlin ickiness buzzing around my cranium like a gnat while I try to do that.

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Completing these arcs reminds us of why "Never Have I Ever" has been such a treat. Nalini's struggle to open her heart after losing the love of her life while raising Devi as a single mother is moving and relatable. Kamala's self-determination journey, through which she learns to shirk the expectations of her family and community, and defy the sexism she faces in her graduate research program, lands in a lovely way.

Nirmala's second season addition refreshed the comedic energy of the show too, as Nirmala inspires Nalini, Devi and Kamala to embrace the life they've chosen in Sherman Oaks, Calif. instead of pining for an existence Nalini and Mohan left behind. Nirmala, like Nalini, comes to understand that it's OK to, as she says, "be flitting about with a boyfriend like Carrie Bradshaw" instead of "mourning my dead boyfriend, like Carrie Bradshaw! Spoiler alert!" 

That's adorable. Also, couldn't Nirmala's very much alive boyfriend be played by any number of middle-aged white comics? Seriously, I googled "very white comedian" and the first picture to pop up was the highly unproblematic Jim Gaffigan, who is a whopping five years younger than Garlin and well into the realm of "age appropriate."

Even if he weren't, so what? "I'm clearly a GMILF," Nirmala informs Kamala.

The unwavering devotion "Never Have I Ever" gives to these women's points of view is not fundamentally transformed by Garlin's presence. To the end, it remains a thoughtful, sweet story about the fantastical expectations teenagers set for themselves and the ways that maturity chips away at those unrealistically high bars.  I will always recall it with fondness.

I only wish its ending didn't involve a casting decision I won't soon forget.

The fourth and final season of "Never Have I Ever" is now streaming on Netflix.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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