Daring to go where few comedy series have gone before, “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a new HBO Max comedy half hour created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, takes place on a college campus, defying the TV standard of defaulting young adult tales to the more “universal” high school experience. The series centers four 18-year-old freshmen girls attending the fictional liberal arts school Essex College randomly assigned to room together: Bela (Amrit Kaur), an aspiring comedy writer whose goals include getting accepted into the school’s prestigious comedy publication and having sex with a guy who has abs; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a star student athlete and senator’s daughter; Leighton (Reneé Rapp), an icy sorority legacy and closeted lesbian; and Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet—yes, the other Chalamet is her brother), an earnest, hopelessly naïve first-gen scholarship student utterly incapable of detecting sarcasm.
The salacious-sounding series title—somewhat reminiscent of the ludicrous 2001 Rolling Stone article “The Highly Charged Erotic Life of the Wellesley Girl,” which remains notorious and universally known to students of that campus to this day—is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Much like “Sex and the City,” it’s not as much a story about sex as much as it is one about female friendship between four female friends who spend a lot of time talking about sex. Ironically enough, the “sex lives” of it all is not really the show’s strength, especially in comparison to other offerings out there like “Sex Education.” While the sex scenes are refreshingly unglamorous and more realistically awkward than standard TV fare, for all the talk of being newcomers to sex, particularly for characters just out from under the watchful eye of conservative parents, the young women all come across as masters of sex to a degree that is somewhat odd. Birth control is never discussed except to crack a few jokes, complications like STDs or UTIs certainly never make it into the conversation, and no one, not even the hopelessly naïve Kimberly—who loses her virginity with her high school boyfriend in the pilot—seems to have any questions about sex save how best to snag the desired partner.
Of the four, Whitney gets stuck with the most unfortunate clichés, specifically the overplayed student-teacher storyline (or more accurately, student-assistant soccer coach storyline) rendered here with no particular nuance thus far. “I don’t like boys, I like men,” she announces in a way that is decidedly concerning coming from a teenager fresh out of high school—and a statement the series has still yet to unpack or further address in any meaningful way, although one hopes they just might be saving it for the final episodes. Scott’s excellent performance makes Whitney’s arc more compelling than a storyline this tired has any right to be, but it’s unfortunate that she did not get something more exciting to work with. Whitney’s complicated relationship with her powerhouse senator mother and how it impacts her life and relationships with others feels like a great, but largely untapped source of drama and narrative interest. The few small subplots that are not directly connected to her relationship with her married coach are generally connected to the consequences of being in her mother’s shadow and are far more engaging than the tired student-teacher storyline that unfortunately dominates the vast majority of Whitney’s screen time.
Kimberly’s Cinderella-adjacent arc, complete with unglamorous campus café job and makeover moment to prepare for a fancy ball (there’s also another party she has to leave before midnight to submit an assignment, but I digress), is similarly an incredibly familiar one elevated by a strong performance. However, in comparison to Whitney, Kimberly’s clichés benefit from being less fundamentally aggravating.
Character-wise, Bela and Leighton have the more interesting journeys thus far. Bela, in her aggressive objectification of the opposite sex and quest to bag sexual partner(s) more chiseled than David, is performative, a front to hide her deeper truth, deeply sensitive and somewhat naïve, which peeks through in a handful of surprisingly poignant moments. The other most compelling emotional beats come from Leighton’s arc, which gets off to a precarious start as a suspiciously dated narrative about being closeted, but the more her motivations are explored, the more interesting her arc becomes.
Essex College is an amalgamation of a New England liberal arts school that’s generic enough to feel like something of a missed opportunity. At an older liberal arts school, like Essex supposedly is, the start of freshman year and the end of senior year especially are full of old, weird traditions—it’s arguably one of their defining characteristics. There’s nothing like that here; the closest is a generically floral sorority rush garden party. Television—particularly ongoing series—is such a fantastic medium for world-building, and little to none of that goes on here besides what is absolutely required for various plotlines; it really is a shame. Compared to, say, Greendale Community College of “Community,” Essex is thus far void of any real texture or specificity, more the vague suggestion of a place than a fully rendered environment.
There’s an oddly hurried quality to “Sex Lives”; it’s fun, but flimsy. It can be a bit reminiscent of recycled animation, dressing up old storylines and archetypal figures in some new clothes with some of the details swapped out. From the minimal approach to world building to the various elements that feel more derivative, it’s not the sort of intricately crafted show best savored slowly—it’s a breezy, bingeable romp.
“Sex Lives” is also the sort of show that takes a bit of time to build up momentum. The intentional awkwardness of college move-in day explored in the pilot is unfortunately matched by a stiltedness that seems decidedly less intentional. Of the six episodes provided to reviewers (of the total 10 in the season), the first installment is by far the weakest, marred by an unfortunate number of jokes that feel about as authentically youthful as that meme from Steve Buscemi’s guest appearance on “30 Rock” and a flood of all of the oldest tropes in the YA book. Does someone lose their virginity? Absolutely. Is there a character in the closet? Deeply. How about a teenager in a sexual relationship with a predatory authority figure? Oh yes. Why do we keep doing this? I don’t know, but here we are yet again, making a student-teacher relationship one of the central storylines straight out of the gate. “Okay that felt forced,” a character mentions at one point in the pilot—it’s supposed to hit like a punchline, but it falls flat, and in context could also be interpreted as an apology (or at the very least, an acknowledgement).
As the characters are explored and deepened beyond their initial clichés, the series hits its stride and falls into a more natural rhythm; the gags get funnier and the quips feel more organic—“drip, drip” is actually utilized correctly, people watch Pilot Pete’s season of “The Bachelor” on a laptop in a dorm room and discuss whether Tammy and Mykenna are there for the wrong reasons; touches of verisimilitude that go a long way in a story about a quartet of first semester freshmen who somehow snag invites to about five massive parties a week and live in a spacious, pre-furnished suite that is perhaps best described as the Hollywood fairytale version of freshman student housing.
After some initial hurdles, “Sex Lives” does pick up steam to become an engaging show, albeit one that still has significant room for growth. The MVP here is undoubtedly the casting team. The four stars are all incredible finds with stellar chemistry, both with each other and in the romantic relationships. While strong chemistry is always a plus, the overall scarcity of it lately makes its prevalence here particularly addictive.
“The Sex Lives of College Girls” premieres on HBO Max on November 18th. The first six episodes were screened for review.