The Sex Lives of College Girls, a new show from Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, is the latest addition to TV’s decades-old revelation: Young women have sex. This fundamental truth has provided entertainment to millions of girls at home since the teen dramedy showed them what they were missing. Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and the particularly salacious original Gossip Girl inspired the same thrill as a Sunday morning text from a friend — “Wait, you did what with who?!”
Often, the sex in these shows was more for building a romance that audiences could love than exploring young women’s sexuality. Sex was relegated to two different kinds: the forbidden, bad-boy kind, which fuels Chuck and Blair fan art and unresolved childhood trauma, and the meant-to-be kind, which sells DVDs and back tattoos of vampiric Robert Pattinson. In recent years, as feminism makes the sometimes depressing transition from revolutionary activism to pussyhat, shows for young women have tried getting smarter about sex with varying degrees of success. Sex Education and The Bold Type are two recent examples of successes, both interested in funny, honest, multifaceted portrayals of women’s sexuality and all the unglamorous pain and processing that comes with it. These shows still make you feel like you’re gossiping with your friends, but they leave in the part where you might console your friend or give advice, making the show seem more alive and, you know, relatable.
I hoped that The Sex Lives of College Girls would be this kind of cathartic watch, especially since the trailer sets it up as a sort of Sex and the City for people that attended college somewhere with trees. From this first episode, though, the series aligns itself with some of those less successful modern girl romps; I’m talking the straight-to-Netflix romantic comedies reliant on invoking Hillary Clinton and, like, Noah Centineo for their laughs.
We open with our titular college girls trickling into what I found vomit-inducing as a teen but looks kind of chill on HBO Max: freshman move-in day. The four girls we’re following, who all end up being roommates, are relatively different except for being college girls with sex lives, etc.
Pauline Chalamet (of the Timothee Chalamets) plays Kimberly, filling the show’s “sheltered white Protestant” quota: self-described as from the “whitest town in the world,” kind and mousey but seems interested in exploring new cultures and bodies.
Reneé Rapp’s Leighton is rich and from New Yawk and that, along with being mean, makes up the majority of her personality. She wants to be beloved, but she has trouble navigating her own coldness.
Then we have Alyah Chaney Scott as Whitney, a fairly underbaked character. She doesn’t have many opportunities to define herself as an individual and is mainly marked by being great at soccer and having a famous senator mom, Evette (Sherri Shepherd), who other characters revere.
Unsurprisingly, the character with the most depth translates as a Mindy Kaling stand-in: Bela (Amrit Kaur). She desperately wants to be a comedy writer and is a self-described “sex-positive, Indian loser,” one dose of armpit Botox away from being a sweatless normal person. (As a self-hating South Asian girl myself, I’ve personally never considered armpit Botox, but I did recently discover you can have a third nipple on your armpit that produces milk.)
Back at orientation day, there’s some expected parental blubbering from Kimberly’s Walgreens store manager dad and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Senator Evette grilling Whitney on why she chose to go to school in Vermont. But we also get Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hottie Gavin Leatherwood, a.k.a. Leighton’s brother Nico, running through campus in slow motion. Kimberly is smitten with him and all the other hunky rich guys on campus, who her mom describes as coke-addled gigolos. (She’s probably half right.) Luckily, Kimberly has a high-school boyfriend, Max, who she alleges looks exactly like Shawn Mendes. (Watch your back, Camila Cabello!) Bela immediately makes the girls’ suite cozy with a poster of Seth Meyers, who she, um, describes as her “dream guy.” (Is she sure?)
Leighton is the fourth roommate, much to her horror since she was supposed to live with her high-school best friends. Although her dad, played by Rob Huebel, repeatedly reminds her that her high-school friends are “assholes,” Leighton remains fully confident that they would want to room with her this year. It turns out they do not and gave the housing office explicit instructions to place Leighton elsewhere. They reveal that they can’t stand how withdrawn she is, as if she’s hiding a piece of herself from them. Oh no! What could the missing piece be? Certainly not something related to gender and sexuality and topical to a show about teens being sexually active! Just kidding, she’s secretly gay, but no one knows that yet other than Leighton and us. Meanwhile, she rages. Leighton grouchily deals with being dropped like a soggy copy of The New Yorker, and the rest of the girls hammer out their extracurriculars.
Bela sets her sights on the Catullan, a comedy group on campus helmed by iron-fisted Seth Meyers types. Naturally, Bela salivates through their general interest meeting, dreaming of the day that she, too, can be assistant to a writer who wrote one episode of Family Guy. Although she enthusiastically submits a written application for consideration, what actually lands Bela on the Catullan roster were hand jobs she gave six different members. Bela, for who I am working on a drinking game based on how many times she says “sex-positive,” “Hillary Clinton,” or makes a pass at an ugly man (one of the Catullan members was notably wearing a straw skimmer hat during the deed), considers this a huge win. And you know what? Good for her. Six hand jobs take a lot of hand stamina.
In her role as the poor one, Kimberly is less interested in 18-year-old dick than paying tuition and becomes one of the few students on campus with a work-study job. She lands a gig at the campus café Sips, where her co-workers Canaan (Christopher Meyer) and Lila (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) take advantage of her achingly Middle America vibe (even though she’s from Arizona). Canaan sells Kim a story about his crack-addicted mother (who does not exist) and Lila’s teen pregnancy (which never happened) after Kimberly blubbers about being excited to make a Black, uh, she means “African American,” oh, is “Black” okay? friend. Other than Whitney, of course, who Kimberly probably forgot about because her mom is a senator that is not addicted to crack.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kim is sheltered in more ways than one. It’s not that boyfriend Max (Matthew Gold), who does not look like Shawn Mendes, wasn’t ready to have sex; he just wanted to dump her immediately after doing it. He waits for his weekend visit to Essex and the couple’s lackluster first time to break her heart. But before he lumbers back to Princeton, Max steals Kim’s deodorant, which makes me wonder what kind she uses. I’d guess Tom’s; she seems like a Tom’s kind of girl.
When it comes to Whitney, it turns out she chose to go to school in Vermont because she’s banging her soccer coach (James Morosini), and now we finally get to the “sex” part of the series. Most of the scenes are disappointingly bland or cut to people pulling clothes on and/or off with medium enthusiasm. But there’s trouble in golden girl Whitney’s paradise, too. Her DILF coach, who likes her “skin tone,” is married, and despite being a high-profile senator’s daughter with access to security details and search engines, she had absolutely no idea and cries on her run back to campus. Oops.
So, sad girls all around, but Bela isn’t having it. Naughty Nico (my nickname for him, let me know if it’s working for you) invites her and Leighton to the coveted upperclassmen frat party, and she convinces Whitney and Kimberly to join. (She stands in front of a poster I could not look away from, which I believe is an illustrated version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover with Malala and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
The girls decide to go out after posing through a montage of their Shein minidresses. While the rest of the girls freeze waiting in line outside the frat house, Leighton dips to sit at a hotel and casino bar and plan a hookup with Jillian, 34. Really, Leighton? You expect me to believe you’re a 19-year-old New Yorker that chooses to have sex with a hot older woman at a combination hotel and casino? Nah, you’re from New Jersey.
At the frat party, there’s a glowing Schlitz sign hanging over the bar, which very safely only serves open, pre-poured drinks, but honestly, the party could be worse. Kim and Naughty Nico catch an interest in each other after she gets her shirt wet with beer and he gets her a flannel to put over it, so the night is not all for naught. There is wood-paneling-induced romance afoot, even for grieving Whitney, who locks eyes with Canaan and immediately asks to see his room. Like, for sex. Although we don’t see the aftermath of their conversation, I doubt they go through with it, but on the other hand, when an opportunity presents itself, you take it. You might not necessarily feel good about it afterward, but, you know.
Sex-positive Bela knows what I’m talking about. At the party, two irritated Catullan girlfriends call her a slut, and not in a complimentary way, so I guess they aren’t as good at hand jobs as her. Bela and Kimberly end up heading back to the dorm while their two roommates go through with their respective romps, and the episode leaves us there. The premiere was a decent introduction to Essex College and the girl-boss comedy of the series, but its approach to teen sex feels painfully inauthentic, even for our post-Euphoria world. The characters are a little emotionally flat, their problems a bit unbelievable, but maybe that’s just college.