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The cheekiest joke in The Sex Lives of College Girls is that title: It’s one that seems to promise sleaze and scandal, only for the show to deliver little of either. But that, more or less, seems to be the point. In the show’s telling, the actual sex lives of its college girls aren’t all that interesting — when they do get laid, the scenes are tame, PG-13 stuff. The real excitement of campus life lies in the unprecedented freedom it offers young adults to discover or reinvent themselves amid a sea of other young adults doing exactly the same.
On moving day at the fictional Essex College in Vermont, four roommates meet for the first time: Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) is a sheltered scholarship student; Leighton (Reneé Rapp) is a preppy legacy; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is a senator’s star-athlete daughter; and Bela (Amrit Kaur) is an Indian-American comedy nerd. Each comes in with her own hopes about who she might become in college that she couldn’t be in high school, and over the course of the season, each finds herself pushed in directions she not only didn’t expect, but couldn’t have imagined.
The Sex Lives of College Girls
Airdate: Thursday, Nov. 18
Cast: Amrit Kaur, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Reneé Rapp, Midori Francis, Gavin Leatherwood, Chris Meyer, Ilia Isorelys Paulino, Lauren Spencer, Renika Williams
Creators: Mindy Kaling, Justin Noble
For the most part, The Sex Lives of College Girls feels like the TV equivalent of dorm-room pizza: nothing novel or fancy, perhaps, but warm and gooey enough to satisfy. Leighton is such a Regina George type that she’s played by an actor who actually played Regina George on Broadway, but it’s no less fun to watch Rapp snort “You think that’s a brunch place?” when a schoolmate tries to cut her down to size with a Dean & Deluca-themed insult. Kimberly’s crush on a boy from a very different clique largely unfolds along standard rom-com beats, but Chalamet and Gavin Leatherwood share enough flirty chemistry to induce butterflies. And while it’s obvious from the get-go that these four girls with little in common will start to bond in spite of themselves, it’s still a treat to cozy up on the couch with them as it happens.
On the other hand: Tales about college aren’t nearly as popular on TV as ones about high school, and yet even so, some of the show’s storylines already feel like they’re getting stale. Whitney is done few favors by a romantic plot that telegraphs disaster from its first moments, then sprints toward that disaster with very few surprise turns along the way. And either college really hasn’t changed in the roughly two decades since I was that age, or The Sex Lives of College Girls is a millennial’s idea of what Gen Z is up to. A storyline about a closeted gay student and jokes about Greek life and feminist poetry readings feel like they could have come from any point in the past 10 or 20 years.
Now and then, though, The Sex Lives of College Girls shows potential to become something more daring. Of the four leads, Bela feels pinned down in a way the others don’t quite yet. Partly this is thanks to Kaur’s effervescent weirdo energy, but it’s also because the character’s uphill climb to join a male-dominated comedy magazine feels pointed and specific in its details. A B-plot about a “chuckle-fucker” puts a fresh spin on the usual heterosexual dating tropes, and Bela’s uneasy relationships with fellow women in comedy resist both misogynistic assumptions and go-girl sloganeering. Both seem rooted in intimate personal experience — presumably creator Mindy Kaling’s — in a way that, say, Whitney’s struggle to win over her soccer teammates does not.
Likewise, Kimberly’s class anxiety, which stems from her being one of the poorer kids attending a posh private school, deepens what might have otherwise come across as garden-variety awkwardness. Her work-study job at the campus coffee shop introduces a couple of co-workers who quickly emerge as two of the series’ most instantly likable supporting characters: deadpan Lila (Ilia Isorelys Paulino) and no-nonsense Canaan (Chris Meyer), who needle Kimberly about her white-feminist cluelessness without reducing her or themselves to an icky “teachable moments” dynamic. Along with Jocelyn (Lauren Spencer), a physically disabled hallmate who seems to be living it up freshman year better than just about anyone else, they offer glimpses into stories that fall even farther outside the stereotypical New England college experience.
But The Sex Lives of College Girls deserves the chance to come into its own alongside its girls. The strongest of the six episodes sent to critics (of 10 total for the season) is the last, which notably focuses less on the girls’ love lives than their evolving relationships with themselves and one another. A fancy dinner over parents’ weekend throws into sharp relief the contrast between who these girls are now and who they were just six episodes ago. Afterward, Kimberly’s mother (Nicole Sullivan) — introduced in episode one, trying to shield her teenage daughter from the sight of a couple making out on the lawn — notes with a mixture of pride, sadness and worry that Kimberly has changed. She’s right, but Kimberly isn’t wrong either when she insists she’s not trying to be anyone she’s not.
The Sex Lives of Teenage Girls understands that, though naked parties or one-night stands can be fun, and though our characters enthusiastically participate in both, the most transgressive thrill college has to offer these young women is the opportunity to become more fully themselves.
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