HBO Max's "The Sex Lives of College Girls" is less erotic and more awkward than its alluring title

Mindy Kaling's "Never Have I Ever" follow-up makes some freshman fumbles on its journey of self-discovery

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 18, 2021 5:48PM (EST)

Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur from "Sex Lives of College Girls" (Jessica Brooks/Courtesy of HBO Max)
Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur from "Sex Lives of College Girls" (Jessica Brooks/Courtesy of HBO Max)

Orientation week rarely ranks highly on the college grad's list of indelible memories.  We understand the vital purpose serves – it's right there in the name – but once undergraduate life gets underway, orientation's lasting role is mainly as a notch on our personal timelines that serves to place where we first met friends, exes or life partners.

This is the kindest explanation of why the premiere of "The Sex Lives of College Girls" has the feeling of something it's OK to forget, but that we're obligated to slog through. If my first exposure to college life felt like this I would have immediately started researching transfer options and lobbying for a gap year.

Beyond that awkward intro, to employ the wise phrase neither TV audiences nor jaded late-adolescents love hearing, it gets better. Not enough to qualify as groundbreaking, I'll grant you, but midway through the fourth of the first six episodes I found myself enjoying the horny and confused title characters Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), Bela (Amrit Kaur), Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) and Leighton (Reneé Rapp), even rooting for them.

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If it matures into an easy pleasure by the end of its 10-episode season, all the better. 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.

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.

Whitney, for example, rebels against her mother's insistence on keeping her nose clean by taking a secret risk designed to create politically unfortunate headlines. Bela is basically the incarnation of Kaling's college self, a young Indian woman who would rather join the Essex's equivalent of the Harvard Lampoon than go pre-med. Leighton presents as a mean girl, which is convenient since Rapp played "Mean Girls" character Regina George on Broadway.

Scott and Rapp find a way to knit distinct performances around characters initially presented as types indulging in secrets that fit into tropes about college life and a young woman's sexual exploration. But interiority is not this script's strong suit.

This is especially irritating with regard to Kaur's Bela, who comes off as her creator's wish fulfillment double, the star of endless esprit d'escalier daydreams made real, as opposed to a unique creation. This being Kaling's show, it's natural to expect her to write scenes from her life into it. But set against the singular appeal of her "Never Have I Ever" lead character, Bela comes across as an imitation of other women Kaling has played instead of a unique creation.

Chalamet's Kimberly also is familiar but in the sense that we recognize the kind of kid she is. Many people may be more like her than the other girls, in fact – a student whose grades are impressive enough to gain entry to a world of exclusivity but whose family's lack of wealth and provincial naivete prevent full access to all it has to offer.

Still, Chalamet makes it matter to us that Kimberly tries, and fails, and learns, and keeps trying. The actor oozes an innocent awkwardness designed to maximize every wince-worthy stumble while selling us on the virtues of plugging along. This helps when she, along with her new cohorts, glide through the usual stops on the female co-ed's highway of unwise choices and mistakes.

Mind you, the word "mistake" has puritanical connotations when it comes to sex that aren't present here. Kimberly commits some impressive social fouls in her first interactions with her work-study cohorts that let us know they're probably among the few Black and Latina people she's met in her life. Those are mishaps from which she recovers.

Everything that happens with her and the other young women behind closed doors are lessons – some tough, some educational, many of them liberating. One key relationship raises the specter of fetishization in an early conversation, for example, and while it is batted away, other problematic power imbalances ensure that danger lingers in our minds.

But this pairing is one we've seen before, along with the expected subplots revolving around closeted sexuality, wolves disguised in feminist shearling and the minimally developed auxiliary character whom audiences don't expect to be having tons of sex but actually is. 

"The Sex Lives of College Girls" is a more erotically alluring title than the show turns out to be, which is a view of college life through the lens of women as opposed to yet another frat boy or cheerleader romp.

But we've seen better depictions of college misadventures, and while most aren't as realistically inclusive as this one, neither are their mechanics as obvious. The undergraduate experience is all about separating from the people who raised us and discovering who we really are. Any show about that journey needs to have figured that out already.

The first two episodes of "The Sex Lives of College Girls" premiere Thursday, Nov. 18 on HBO Max. Three new episodes premiere on Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, leading up to the final two episodes of the season on Dec. 9.

Watch a trailer for the series below via YouTube.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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