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HBO Max's The Sex Lives of College Girls has potential, but sometimes feels like a millennial’s idea of what Gen Z is up to

  • "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," says Angie Han of the HBO Max dramedy created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble. "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." Han adds: "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. (Reneé Rapp's) 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, (Amrit Kaur's) 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-f*cker' 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."

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    • The Sex Lives of College Girls highlights the dearth of college-based shows: "The small screen has rarely lacked for dramas and comedies about high school," says Alan Sepinwall. "This makes sense. That’s a time of great personal change and heightened emotions, along with all the complications and conflicts that come from the main characters still living at home with their parents. This is fertile narrative space. So, too, though, are the years directly after, when people are in that stage between childhood and adulthood, blessed with abundant freedom and minimal responsibility. Yet college shows have historically been much rarer, and some teen series have gone to extreme lengths to delay having to transition from one setting to the other, like the time the kids from the original Beverly Hills 90210 repeated their junior year without comment. Periodically, a college show has made a splash — A Different World and Felicity in the Nineties, Community and Greek in the late-2000s — in part because they’ve had the turf more or less to themselves. But even audiences seem to prefer the adventures of the slightly younger set: Lots of viewers of a certain age still mourn Judd Apatow’s short-lived high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks while forgetting all about his college-set show, Undeclared, from a year later. The explosion in scripted TV over the past few years has led to an increase in all kinds of shows, college-set ones included. Netflix has both Dear White People and The Chair (though the latter is much more about the faculty than the students), Freeform has grown-ish, and there are also international series like Hulu’s Normal People. So Sex Lives is not arriving to territory that feels, for lack of a better word, virgin. But it quickly stakes its claim as a likable show that understands what’s specifically exciting and terrifying — for both the students and their distant parents — about arriving on campus. The four leads are all well cast and have great chemistry with one another, especially after Leighton stops being standoffish to the others a few episodes in. It’s a good mix of personality types, with different brands of conflict that frequently wind up three-against-one."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls is a rollicking good time and a rare TV show that really delves into the multifaceted and endlessly entertaining world of undergraduate shenanigans: "Scott, Kaur, Rapp, and Chalamet have the kind of chemistry that lights up a scene and invites you in," says Proma Khosla. "Kaur's raucous energy and Chalamet's meticulous delivery run away with most of their scenes. Any combination of two or three of the girls works just as well as the full squad, like a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants where the focus is also on other people's pants. Fans of the Kaling oeuvre will recognize her comic rhythms, on display here with a knack for subverting our first impressions of these characters. Demure Kimberly doesn't hesitate to stand up for herself, while prim and proper Leighton loves a good expletive. Bela is the most forward about her horny determination, but how it will manifest — from a naked party to a library meet cute to a concerning power move to get a writing job — will never be what you expect. There are pockets where the comedic tone shifts without warning, but the characters are at least at the same party (literally and figuratively) which sells those scenes instead of disorienting the viewer. HBO provided critics with the first six episodes, during which the show is still uneven in handling the girls' individual journeys. Some are romantic or sexual, some academic, some socioeconomic or familial, but no one is written out fully enough to have it all."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls takes a while to get going because "there's a lab-created feel to this group that takes a moment to digest": "If it matures into an easy pleasure by the end of its 10-episode season, all the better," says Melanie McFarland. "Getting there relies on viewer grading on a curve dragged down by the 51-minute series premiere's listlessness. That's an imposing runtime for the best comedies, and this show isn't close to that rank. Around the 25-minute mark I found myself checking the press notes to confirm that Mindy Kaling and her co-creator Justin Noble were not, in fact, trying to pass off this loose meat sandwich of undergrad twists and traps as a dramedy. Luckily the core ensemble's chemistry pulls us into the vagaries of freshman life at Essex College, a fictional New England school attended by the children of the wealthy and famous or both. Kimberly, an Arizonan whose father manages a Walgreens is an exception. She's the first of these suite mates that we meet, followed by the ambitious Bela, who has comedy writing aspirations, and Whitney, a star athlete daughter of a famous congressional official. They welcome each other with open arms. Their fourth roommate, the WASP-y Leighton, is less thrilled to be thrown in with them."
    • 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: "Unlike a show such as Sex Education, none of them have much confusion or many questions about the mechanics of sex," says Caroline Framke. "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. There's a lab-created feel to this group that takes a moment to digest. This refers less to the quartet's intentionally balanced cultural makeup than their character profiles and the problematic subplot time bombs cured into paving stones placed down the road a ways."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls is so much more than that salacious title: "Yes, there’s plenty of sex — sometimes hot, sometimes awkward, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes beautifully romantic — but this is really about the LIVES of college girls, and even with the staccato beat of well-timed one-liners and a few storylines that have been done to death, there’s something fresh and original and just plain entertaining about each of the six (out of 10) episodes I’ve seen," says Richard Roeper, adding: "With each episode, The Sex Lives of College Girls provides new insights and sometimes surprising revelations about the core four, while we get valuable supporting contributions from Sherri Shepherd as Whitney’s senator mom, who seems more excited about an on-air invite from Jake Tapper than her daughter’s collegiate activities; Rob Huebel as Leighton’s WASPy Republican father; Gavin Leatherwood as Leighton’s gorgeous, upperclassman brother, who takes a shine to the inexperienced and shy Kimberly; Lauren Spencer, playing a wisecracking lifestyle influencer in a wheelchair, and Ilia Isorelys Paulino and Christopher Meyer as Kimberly’s co-workers at a coffee shop."
    • Despite its charms, Sex Lives can feel like a show that’s about 10 years past its prime: "It hits all the marks of a hackneyed teen soap, including the cringe-worthy use of slang (do we really need to talk in emojis?)," says Dana Gerber, who is currently a college senior. "There’s the blonde who doesn’t 'eat for enjoyment,' as Leighton quips, the overachiever embroiled in a forbidden affair, and the dorky girl pining after the jock in a relentless will-they-or-won’t-they. Haven’t we graduated to something more nuanced? The attempts at exploring social justice issues also often feel surface level. In one scene, Bela, who is Indian American, is told explicitly that there are only a few spots set aside for female writers on her college’s magazine, an act of exclusion that might have been more powerful if it had resembled the more sinister microaggressions that run rampant on college campuses. In another, a cash-strapped Kimberly vows to keep the tags on an expensive dress so that she can return it later, only to rip off the tags once her crush compliments her on it. The episodes range in length from about 25 to 50 minutes, and I wish the writers had used this flexibility to linger more on these topics and less on the 'naked party' in the second episode. If you can accept its anachronisms, the show has its moments — especially when it homes in on the relationships among the four roommates — like the antics that ensue when the dorm’s mini fridge stinks and none of the girls wants to take the blame. Or at a dinner between all the girls and their parents, when dynamics of race, gender, and class finally have some weight to them. I hoped for more of these bonding scenes, but they’ve got to get to the sex, after all. There’s actually not as much of it as the show’s title might suggest, and the scenes of intimacy are handled tastefully."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls shares several qualities with Never Have I Ever, for better or for worse: "Its tone skitters and jolts in the first episodes, trying to force horniness and deliver punchlines with jokes that belie its creators’ age (the pilot includes a bit on Ben Affleck’s Phoenix tattoo; one character is obsessed with Seth Meyers)," says Adrian Horton. "The obligatory heartthrob looks years older than the girls. The actors are winning but struggle to overcome overdrawn quirks that begin to soften midway through the season, as their friendships begin to bloom (six of the 10 half-hour episodes were available for review). And like the Netflix series, The Sex Lives of College Girls is defined and buffered by self-absorption, from Leighton and Bela’s bullheadedness to its exclusive setting. The Ivy League-ness of the Essex College experience makes the whole enterprise feel a bit like a narcissism project, one that tries to reframe its creators origin story for Gen Z yet feels more like a parody of shticks for a limited audience. Full disclosure: I went to one of these schools, yet even as the micro-target demo, I’d much rather see the messiness, pressures and revelations of sex filtered through frat houses, or game days, or the weight of anonymity (and debt) that characterizes college life for the bulk of American undergraduates."
    • Sex Lives characters all come across as masters of sex to a degree that is somewhat odd: "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," says Ciara Wardlow. "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." Wardlow adds: "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."
    • The core four work beautifully together, and the college setting makes the stuck-togetherness of such different personalities feel believable: "The series may not break entirely new ground like Netflix’s bracingly sex-positive Sex Education or Kaling’s brilliantly specific portrait of a grieving Indian-American family on Never Have I Ever," says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. "But Sex Lives assembles several familiar parts — call it Sex and the City for modern college girls, or Greek with sex positivity, or Sex Education with an emphasis on the female gaze — into a package that is so fun that we don’t mind one bit. And that’s thanks largely to Kaling’s knack for lovably flawed characters, killer one-liners, and romantic comedy pairings that keep us watching."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls dives directly into the deep end of the partying, hook-ups, and self-realization that happens at college: "The show isn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of its romantic and identity-based storylines, but it approaches each girl’s predicaments with a tangible amount of love and understanding," says Radhika Menon. "Leighton’s antics are bitchy, but once the layers are peeled back it’s easy to rationalize her behavior. Whitney’s choice in a love interest is questionable, but at that age, who actually makes sound decisions? The Sex Lives of College Girls makes the case that yes, college is messy. But that’s precisely why we need to see more of it."
    • The depiction of sex isn’t nearly as risqué as in fellow teen comedy Sex Education, but Sex Lives Of College Girls is still Kaling’s boldest work so far: "The young characters here are uninhibited thanks to the lack of adult supervision, lots of empty rooms, and the ability to freely drink," says Saloni Gajjar. "The way the show tackles how teens cope with sudden freedom is both funny and truthful. In fact, SLOCG rarely dwells on any parental subplots or drama. The entire focus is on Bela, Leighton, Kimberley, Whitney, and their peers. Their respective parents—played by guest stars including Sherri Shepherd, Rob Huebel, and Nicole Sullivan—only sporadically show up or are mentioned after dropping their kids off at Essex. There’s a pivotal and unnerving family dinner in the sixth episode, but the show holds on to its unbridled vibe even in the more dramatic moments. This coming-of-age story is a joyride."
    • The Sex Lives of College Girls stars explain why our culture is so obsessed with the sex lives of young women: "Instead of older women who have had years of practice and years of figuring out what they want?" says Pauline Chalamet, who is Timothée Chalamet's sister. "It’s like, I want to know that! I want to talk to the 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-year-old women who are still having sex. But the answer is quite dark. There’s a fetishization — a Lolita fetish, but I don’t even really like that term, because the book is different than the movie. What’s really important are shows like this. We’re not following girls that are having crazy, amazing sex all the time. It’s awkward and weird, and it gets funky in certain situations. Those are the sex lives of college girls." Chanelle Scott adds: "I grew up with white women being centered in the idea of what is sexy, what is beautiful, and Black women being centered in the idea of what is hot and scandalous and voluptuous and hypersexualized. That is all from the male gaze. So I grew up not seeing Black women get to have awkward moments, normal sexual moments. Our show is cool in the sense that I get to be a Black girl who has awkward, messy sexual moments."
    • Mindy Kaling on why she wanted to tackle the college experience: "What I love about the college experience is that there’s no other time in your life when you’re randomly assigned to live with people you did not choose," says Kaling. "You’re away from home for the first time. There’s so much expectation and so many aspirations. People go to college and want to reinvent themselves. I went to Dartmouth, and I hadn’t seen this very specific, New England or East Coast college setting on TV yet. My co-creator, Justin Noble, went to Yale. We both loved our time in college. It felt like a great setting. It reminds me of Hogwarts in that there’s so much wish fulfillment and feelings of 'I wish we could go back there.' We knew it was for HBO Max, so wanted the production value to be incredible. That was a big draw, too." How much of her own experience did you include in the show? "I was sexually repressed as a kid, and continue to feel like I identify that way," says Kaling. "Writing a show about, well, the sex lives of college girls was kind of titillating and exciting. I was not interested in writing about a repressed young Asian woman. I wanted to do a sex-positive show with women who, even though they are very different from each other, have an unabashed attitude toward sexuality and an excitement about their adventurous lives. In order to do that, I needed people who had various experiences in college. We hired a mostly female, super diverse staff who were more advanced than me and Justin, and could share their lessons with us."

    TOPICS: The Sex Lives of College Girls, HBO Max, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Amrit Kaur, Justin Noble, Mindy Kaling, Pauline Chalamet, Reneé Rapp




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