For many years, television has avoided college campuses. Teen dramas historically contain themselves to high school, and if the characters are allowed to escape that purgatory and graduate, the show often struggles to either let them go or find realistic storylines for them. On the flip side, young adult series often skip the intermediary college step and plunge directly into post-grad life, missing the significant amount of growth that occurs while teenagers are away from their parents for the first time. Luckily, Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s new HBO Max comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls dives directly into the deep end of the partying, hook-ups, and self-realization that happens at college.
The series centers on four girls from extremely different backgrounds who have been grouped together as roommates at the esteemed and picturesque Essex College in the Northeast. Bela (Amrit Kaur) fancies college as a place to finally explore sex after being raised in a conservative household; Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) comes from a small town and lacks street smarts; Leighton (Renee Rapp) is a legacy student who seemingly has everything going for her but is hiding a big secret; and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is a star soccer player who has to balance the expectations that come with being a Senator’s daughter.
The Sex Lives of College Girls begins immediately with move-in day, which provides a perfect window into the worlds each girl is leaving behind. The parents’ reactions vary among coddling, excited, and detached, and are played to great comedic effect by veteran actors like Rob Huebel and Sherri Shepherd. (With this pedigree, hopefully the series will feature a Parent’s Day episode in the future). It’s an important jumping off point for the show because it grounds the characters amid their parent’s expectations, and ultimately allows the girls to spread their wings and figure out who they want to be away from those watchful eyes.
As for the sex, there’s a lot of talk about it but not as much of it happening. In the five episodes available to critics (out of an eventual 10), it’s apparent that the girls are all sex-positive while still trying to figure out exactly what they want from their sexual relationships. Bela views sex as transactional, a trading card that can be cashed in when needed. Kimberly, after losing her virginity to her high school boyfriend and then immediately getting dumped, is wary about the entire ordeal. Leighton peruses lesbian dating apps in secrecy while waving off male suitors on campus. And disappointingly, Whitney engages in hush-hush hook-ups with her bland soccer coach—a trope that has played out in many teen dramas that have come before. Most of the love interests on the show are conventionally attractive white males, which also feels like a miss in terms of casting given the diverse setting of college.
Still, the main cast boasts fresh, diverse faces for these unfolding stories. All four main actresses are engaging and endearing, but Kaur and Chalamet stand out. Maybe it’s due to the characters they’re playing, but Kaur’s Bela and Chalamet’s Kimberly are the most recognizable versions of the memorable people we’ve all met in college: down-to-earth yet caricatures at the same time.
In Bela, it’s also refreshing to see another brown character on TV challenge stereotypes, and embody a sex-positive attitude and creative dream. The character is clearly based on Kaling herself who attended a similar type of prestigious college at Dartmouth, studied playwriting, and joined comedy groups on campus. But Bela’s literal naked openness and interest in sexual exploits make her a new kind of South Asian character that we are just starting to see more of.
The show isn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of its romantic and identity-based storylines, but it approaches each girl’s predicaments with a tangible amount of love and understanding. Leighton’s antics are bitchy, but once the layers are peeled back it’s easy to rationalize her behavior. Whitney’s choice in a love interest is questionable, but at that age, who actually makes sound decisions? The Sex Lives of College Girls makes the case that yes, college is messy. But that’s precisely why we need to see more of it.
The first two episodes of The Sex Lives of College Girls premiere Thursday, November 18th on HBO Max, with a weekly release to follow.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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