When it comes to its setting, The Sex Lives of College Girls is in relatively uncharted territory. High school has long been a backdrop for television shows, but just a handful of series have looked beyond prom and graduation to dramatize the angst of college life. Much like a freshman arriving on campus for the first time, Mindy Kaling’s new HBO comedy has the opportunity to make a name for itself among the smattering of other college-set shows like Greek and Dear White People, and the chance to represent a period of young adulthood that’s often overlooked on the small screen.
But while The Sex Lives of College Girls does seem aware of the novelty of its setting, it fails to authentically depict the modern college experience and the fully-formed young women at its center. Through its first six episodes (there are ten total), the comedy relies on tired coming-of-age tropes as it struggles to weave together its various stories of sexual adventure with larger social themes.
Created by Kaling and Justin Noble (Never Have I Ever), The Sex Lives of College Girls centers around four roommates at the prestigious Essex College in New England. The girls are randomly thrown together by the university, and as you might expect, they’re all incredibly different: Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a star soccer player, is happy to go with the flow, while comedy-obsessive Bela (Amrit Kaur) goes to great lengths to join the school’s satire magazine. Meanwhile, the ultra-naïve Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), a scholarship student, struggles to find her place among her wealthy peers, particularly Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a New York City native with no problem telling a professor that her father donated the building they’re currently standing in.
The first episode of any series is bound to be clunky, but in a college-set show, everyone is completely new to both each other and the audience, which should make table-setting at least marginally easier. Alas, The Sex Lives of College Girls feels like it's pushing a boulder uphill in its attempt to convey necessary information about each character. Bela’s story is especially thin: her primary concern in the premiere is making the first round of cuts for The Catullan, a comedy magazine that serves as a springboard to SNL, but we’re provided with little evidence that she’s actually funny, and when she is cracking jokes, they sound like something written by a thirtysomething, not an 18-year-old (when we first meet Bela, she compares herself to Ben Affleck’s “giant back tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes”). Ultimately The Catullan storyline allows Kaling and Noble to explore sexism and racism in comedy, but without establishing a baseline for Bela, it’s unclear why she wants to join this world in the first place, particularly when everyone within it is presented as pretty awful from the get-go.
As far as intimacy goes, the HBO Max comedy vascillates between being sex-positive and hopelessly naïve, and the rapid shifts in tone can be difficult to reconcile. When Kimberly’s high school boyfriend breaks up with her just hours after they have sex for the first time, she’s devastated, but she quickly moves on when Leighton’s brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood) catches her eye. Meanwhile, after Whitney has sex with a guy she met at a party, Bela and Kimberly gape at her as if a one-night stand is the naughtiest thing in the world. Are these really the same girls who have been talking openly about getting “piped, railed, torn up, and slit slammed” for weeks?
Nowhere is the show’s sex blindspot more apparent than in Whitney’s relationship with her married soccer coach, Dalton (James Morosini). The two are seen hooking up just 15 minutes into the first episode, and it’s suggested that their affair began before she even arrived on campus, which raises some serious questions about recruiting, power dynamics, and consent that Sex Lives declines to engage with. This storyline, which weighs down Scott’s otherwise engaging performance, seems to be saying that Whitney’s understanding of romantic relationships is inherently flawed, but its inclusion completely contradicts the show’s commitment to building its characters as modern, socially-aware young women. It’s difficult to imagine that the always-in-command Whitney, who came of age in the wake of the #MeToo movement, would see the boring, spineless Dalton as anything other than a grown man taking advantage of his 18-year-old player, and the story does a disservice to college students, male and female, well-aware of the dangers of the “student/teacher” trope.
Sex Lives’ most successful storyline belongs to Leighton, who, we learn, seeks out anonymous sex on a lesbian dating app. While she’s willing to be herself around random hookups, Leighton refuses to come out to those close to her for fear of being known as “the lesbian roommate” or “the lesbian sorority girl,” labels she believes would only make her more isolated. Over the course of the first six episodes, Rapp’s character slowly comes to terms with her identity in a storyline that reinforces the idea that the journey to self-acceptance is hardly linear.
There are other strong moments in The Sex Lives of College Girls, including Kimberly’s financial concerns and Sherri Shepherd’s cameo as Whitney’s mom, a high-powered senator. And although some of their performances are wanting (too often, Chalamet’s aggressive “adorkability” pulled me out of the scene), the roommates’ initial bond makes sense, as college friendships are so often defined by physical proximity and rooming assignments. For now, the girls are content to eat their meals together and go out as a group, but if recreating the real college experience is what Kaling and Noble are after, I’d like to see them venture out on their own as they find their own communities on campus.
In many ways, The Sex Lives of College Girls mirrors the journey that so many young women take when leaving home for the first time. Mindy Kaling’s comedy sets out to make a good first impression, but in its attempt to be so many different things — a raunchy comedy, a reflection on class and elitism, a coming-of-age story — it falls flat. It’s an embarrassing debut for a show with so much potential, but college is a place of reinvention, and, given the opportunity, there’s plenty of room for the series to course correct.
The Sex Lives of College Girls premieres on HBO Max November 18th, with new episodes dropping in batches Thursdays through December 9th.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.