Every time I watch a new show that’s ostensibly about high schoolers but stars thirty year-olds going through twentysomething drama, I wonder why there aren’t there more TV shows set in college. It’s a contained setting that allows for a cast as sprawling or tightknit as need be. High school experiences may be more broadly universal, but college offers many similarly intense ones with the added narrative bonus of the characters living within the same square mile, or even the same room, as they go through it all. And yet college shows remain few and far between: for every “Greek” or “A Different World,” there are a dozen high school dramas, comedies, and dramedies stressing about which lunch table to sit at or who’s going stag to prom.
Enter “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” From Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, HBO Max’s latest teen series — after “Genera+ion” and “Gossip Girl” — is the first to tackle college’s particular window of brand new adulthood. The comedy follows four roommates at the fictional Essex College, an amalgamation of New England liberal arts college tropes, where they’re each forced to adjust their expectations for their new campus reality. The series’ main quartet of roommates— including chill jock Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), jaded New York City transplant Leighton (Renée Rapp), aspiring comedian/arm candy Bela (Amrit Kaur), and naïve but determined Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) — is believably mismatched for a group of randomly assigned freshmen. More importantly to the show’s success, the actors are also great together, immediately settling into the kind of fast intimacy that defines so many early college friendships.
In the first half of the season (five episodes were screened for critics; the season will include 10 in total), “The Sex Lives of College Girls” lives up to its name without diving all too deep into the psychology of these particular college girls’ sex lives. Kimberly has her heart broken by her high school boyfriend in the first week of school and just as quickly moves on. Bela, as embodied by standout Kaur, pants after college guys with cartoon wolf level enthusiasm. And while Leighton presents herself as a polished trust fund nightmare — a character that befits Rapp, whose biggest role to date was Regina George, the most vicious queen bee in Broadway’s “Mean Girls” — she also spends every other night scrolling through a lesbian dating app that, she hopes, will grant her as much anonymity as possible. Unlike a show such as “Sex Education,” none of them have much confusion or many questions about the mechanics of sex. They just know that they want it, and when they get to have it, life gets just that much more interesting.
The mashup of R-rated jokes, thrilling sexual adventures and feel-good friendship stories that generally defines “The Sex Lives of College Girls” works for Leighton, Bela, and Kimberly. Where it falls short is with Whitney, who spends most of the show stuck in the toxic quicksand hole of a secret “relationship” with her married soccer coach, Dalton (James Morosini). In the first five episodes, the series does demonstrate enough self-awareness to convey that Whitney’s not exactly living the romantic forbidden love dream she thinks she is, because Dalton is, in fact, a bland and boring creep. But it also doesn’t shed enough new or interesting insight on this extremely tired teen show trope to really justify its inclusion at all, and it’s a shame to see Whitney and Scott alike get so wholly sucked into this storyline’s orbit when they’re so much more compelling outside of it.
Whitney isn’t the only character whose most interesting material lies outside her sexual entanglements. Yes, Kimberly’s flirtation with Leighton’s dreamy brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood) is cute, in large part thanks to Chalamet’s commitment to Kimberly’s more than slightly manic enthusiasm. More interesting, though, are Kimberly’s attempts to fit in at Essex as a scholarship kid surrounded by private school legacy students, which deftly gets at a class divide issue many high school shows (including “Gossip Girl”) struggle to articulate half as well. Bela’s ploys to have the school’s prestigious comedy magazine take her seriously, and the myriad ways that keeps proving impossible because of her race and gender, are more cutting and finely wrought than most “Women In Comedy” thinkpieces out there. And while teen shows have been telling coming out stories for decades now, Leighton’s refusal to be publicly gay is rooted in a fear less about being accepted than in being referred to as “the lesbian _____” for the rest of her life. Each of these plotlines has a specific tie to the college and narrative tension keeping it afloat, with canny performances to match. That’s how any show, no matter the setting, succeeds.
Twenty years ago, Slate suggested that “the college drama … is problematic because there’s little drama,” an assertion that might come as a shock to anyone who’s had a terrible roommate, tried (and failed) to conquer binge-drinking, or missed home so badly they almost went back to it. There’s plenty of drama in college — arguably too much, too fast — and not being able to mine its narrative potential is the fault of the show, not the setting. Even as it stumbles into some pitfalls, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” proves that there are plenty of ways for TV shows to tell college stories, especially when rooted in engagingly messy characters like these.
The first three episodes of “The Sex Lives of College Girls” premieres Thursday, Nov. 18, on HBO Max.
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