[Editor’s note: This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Sex Lives of College Girls Season 2.]
Like any successful college student, The Sex Lives of College Girls has learned from its mistakes in Season 2. The new season of Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s series is sharper, funnier, and hornier than ever as it creates new obstacles for the four roommates, now in their second trimester, to overcome. On nearly all fronts, Sex Lives’ sophomore run is a marked upgrade over its debut season, particularly when it comes to its depiction of power imbalances in sexual relationships.
Though it improved in its final few episodes, Sex Lives Season 1 was weighed down by Whitney’s (Alyah Chanelle Scott) relationship with her married soccer coach, Dalton (James Morosini). For obvious reasons, Whitney and Dalton carry out their affair in secret, but rather than present the relationship for what it is — a man in a position of power taking advantage of an 18-year-old girl — it’s depicted as the story of two people in love, forced apart by unfortunate circumstances. The villain in their subplot isn’t Dalton, who has as much charisma as a wet rock, but his wife, a decision entirely at odds with the show’s otherwise explicitly feminist sensibilities.
Even worse, Whitney and Dalton’s hookups are scored with the same up-tempo music as Leighton’s (Reneé Rapp) or Kimberly’s (Pauline Chalamet), a choice that creates a false equivalency between Whitney’s inappropriate relationship and the good-natured follies of her roommates. This skewed perception is only reinforced when others are let in on the secret. When Whitney’s teammate Willow (Renika Williams) learns about the affair, her response betrays the show’s priorities: “I have so many questions. When did this start? Is he as good at sex as he looks? And bitch, are you crazy?” she asks. “Answer the sex one first.”
After Dalton ends the relationship in Episode 5 — because Whitney’s mother (Sherri Shepherd), a senator, “would have [him] so canceled” if she found out — it feels as if Sex Lives can finally breathe. And though they by no means make up for everything that came before, Kaling and Noble attempt to right the ship in the final few episodes of Season 1, when Dalton is fired and the other players explain why their mismatched power dynamic was so “nasty and wrong,” and remind Whitney of the “very dumb” man’s many other flaws.
By the time Season 2 rolls around, Whitney is in a new friends-with-benefits-ship with Canaan (Christopher Meyer), and with the soccer season over, there’s zero reason to mention Dalton, at all. But in a show of maturity, Sex Lives proves it’s learned its lesson by depicting another power imbalance — and this time, shutting it down swiftly and unambiguously.
In Episode 2, “Frat Problems,” Kimberly asks the kind Professor Hennessey (played by Reno 911’s Kerri Kenney) to co-sign a student loan so she can avoid telling her parents she lost her scholarship. Kimberly is riding high after her professor agrees, but all that comes crashing down when the professor’s husband comes onto her, saying, “We should f*ck some time.”
The scene cuts there, and next we see Kimberly, she’s at a male strip show Bela (Amrit Kaur) has organized to restore the roommates’ reputation with the fraternities (Kimberly saved herself from expulsion, but lost her scholarship, by turning in the most popular fraternity on campus for academic dishonesty.) All signs point to another Sex Lives power dynamic disaster: Kimberly tells her friends that she responded to the harassment by saying, “Cool, but in a way that clearly indicated I meant, not cool,” prompting a debate over the semantics of her remark. Their discussion about consent is interrupted by the Magic Mike Live! performance, and when all four girls are called to the stage, it seems as if the topic is about to be forgotten entirely.
But in an incredibly pleasant surprise, the Doja Cat-backed strip show leads into a scene of Kimberly and her professor in her office. When Kimberly reveals Hennessey’s husband made a sexual advance — “I should’ve said ‘no’ in the moment, but I was confused” — her professor immediately insists Kimberly has “done nothing wrong” and phones her “piece of sh*t” husband to inform him he’s no longer welcome in her home.
It’s a low bar, to be sure, but the absence of any victim-blaming or tolerance for misconduct is a refreshing change of pace for a show that started under such a gray cloud. Only eight minutes pass from the moment of the inappropriate advance to the harasser’s comeuppance; that Sex Lives declines to use Kimberly’s harmful experience as fodder for a larger story indicates it’s rethinking what kinds of sexual encounters it seeks to platform, a deliberate effort that does both its characters and its viewers justice.
This thoughtfulness is exactly what was missing in Sex Lives Season 1, and it carries through to other aspects of the new season. Kimberly’s financial situation and the plight of lower-income students at Essex looms large, while Leighton comes into her own as a queer woman, Bela makes moral compromises to achieve her comedy dreams, and Whitney combats microaggressions and everyday racism on their primarily-white campus. Each of these stories is handled with great sensitivity, through which the show’s trademark raunchy comedy is able to shine. In correcting its power imbalance issue, The Sex Lives of College Girls has found the right blend of comedy, drama, and sex, demonstrating that, for this show, there’s no such thing as a sophomore slump.
New episodes of The Sex Lives of College Girls drop every Thursday on HBO Max.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.