"The Sex Lives of College Girls": Here's to the girl who tries our patience, but in the best way

In these impatient times, Pauline Chalamet's Kimberly reminds us that some people really are trying to do better

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published December 4, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Pauline Chalamet in "The Sex Lives of College Girls" (HBO Max)
Pauline Chalamet in "The Sex Lives of College Girls" (HBO Max)

Out of all of the characters that Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble feature in "The Sex Lives of College Girls," Pauline Chalamet's Essex University freshman Kimberly is the dorm's most potent charmer. Obviously the co-creators and their writers intended that, showing their hand from the opening scene by featuring her drive onto campus with her sweet, prudish parents.

Kimberly isn't simply sheltered. She's a square. Upon meeting her roommate Bela (Amrit Kaur) she expresses her excitement to meet their fellow suitemate's mother, a U.S. Senator, by gushing, "I bought a copy of the Constitution for her to sign!"

On her first day of her work study job she opens her conversation with her co-worker Canaan (Chris Meyer) by announcing out of nowhere, that she's a fan of Jay-Z. The good news is that she acknowledges that sees color. The bad news is that she lets her mouth madly dash away from her brain as she free associates about what that means.

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"I just have to say I come from a small town in Arizona, and it's really exciting for me to have a Black friend," Kimberly tells him.

To this Canaan can only respond, "Oh."

"Or is it African American?" she continues nervously. "I don't know. There are two schools of thought on that. What do you think? . . .  And what's it like being Black at Essex?"

As "The Sex Lives of College Girls" pulls into its finals week, with the last pair of half-hours in its 10-episode season dropping on Thursday, Kimberly remains the character to whom the least amount of crisis-inducing, plot-propelling drama happens.

Nevertheless, and partly due to Chalamet's comically sharp yet sensitive performance, she's the easiest to root for in Essex's freshman class.

Among her suitemates, Kimberly's gotten the heaviest action in the most recent episodes, but that's neither here nor there. Nor is it a life-changing hazard on the level of the messes the rest of her girls are dealing with.

Bela, having achieved her goal to earn a slot on the campus' exclusive comedy magazine The Catullan, was sexually harassed and assaulted by an editor. In the moment she laughs it off, but later she wonders whether to speak out and risk her place at this respected comedy industry incubator or grit her teeth through it.

Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) has an affair with her assistant soccer coach that could taint her mother's political career, while their fourth comrade Leighton (Reneé Rapp) risks losing her romantic connection with another student, Alicia (Midori Francis), because Leighton refuses to come out.

Kimberly's secret is that she's dating Leighton's hot brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood), but that's average college hook-up material. Her other major frets are related to her family's lower economic status, her realization that being at the top of her class back in Arizona doesn't place her in the same educational league as her peers, and her inability to lay decent thirst traps on social media.

Quotidian problems. Add them up, though, and Kimberly becomes the main reason to stick with the show as it warms up.

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Kimberly's a young woman who requires patience, presented to us in a year where few people have much to spare. She's the picture of openness and bewilderment, brazen honesty, gullibility and centrist ignorance. When Canaan spins a ridiculous sob story about never having felt cashmere and tells her his mother is on crack, she takes him at his word. He also fools her into thinking their fellow co-worker Lila (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, wonderful and underused in this season) has a baby whose father is incarcerated, leading Kimberly to try to befriend Lila by feeling her pain. "Prison isn't just for the prisoner," she says sympathetically. "In a way it's prison for the whole family."

"What the f**k are you talking about?" Lila shoots back at her, before laughing off her credulity as precisely what she'd expect from "some hick from s**t-town Arizon-ey!"

Kaling and Noble wrote these exchanges into the premiere episode – and lesser showrunners would have encouraged their team to keep piling humiliations onto the character's slender shoulders. What a relief that this is not that kind of show.

They do make it clear that Kimberly is benighted, a product of a very small, very white place. But they don't judge her for that. On move-in day her parents cheerily greet Bela's by announcing "We're Irish!" and noting that their town has an Indian restaurant they've never been to. Bela simply nods and doesn't carry that into future conversations.

People like Kimberly don't receive much forbearance in the real world right now, even though they really are trying to engage, and failing to live up to expectations, and determined to try again until they get it right.

The problem isn't the Kimberlys we encounter. It's their peers who may have given understanding the lot of the marginalized a try for a few months, only to resent having their relative lack of awareness being called out to them.

Hence the lack of consideration when, against the odds, one meets a Kimberly in real life – as in a person who actually does mean well as opposed to what that phrase connotes in Midwestern terms. (It's the equivalent of the Southern idiom, "Bless your heart.")

Kimberly may show up to your holiday party and rattle off details from the Wikipedia entry on Kwanzaa, for example.  She's awkward but I swear, she's trying. With a gentle correction, she will never do it again.

In the show she wins Canaan and Lila's respect – grudgingly at first, until they bond over their common economic circumstances, mutual despisal of entitled rich kids and a shared belief that pants should not cost more than $40. Lila enjoys Kimberly's entertainment value while kindly protecting her from herself whenever possible.

Not everyone gives Kimberly the benefit of the doubt. A discerning French teacher treats her with disdain after she stumbles while trying to express what she did over the summer, a question her classmates answer with elan. She tells Kimberly she's out of her depth, advising her to drop the class instead of steering her toward a tutor.

Here, too, Kimberly is determined to try. She finds a tutor on her own. Helpfully it happens to be Nico, one of the hottest guys on campus, who's won over by her Eliza Doolittle-esque sweetness, although perhaps not for the most gallant reasons.

If college is a place for pushing boundaries and figuring out who we want to be, Kimberly is that concept's mascot. Kimberly enters this world open and eager to acknowledge everyone's distinguishing facets in a way that's absolutely cringe-worthy. Watching her come to terms with her general knowledge deficits and gaps in worldliness orients the show's emotional compass. She gives us the very thing every college student represents in our imagination: hope for a brighter future, and a willingness to endure whatever mortifying exchanges happen along that path as the price of trying.

The final two episodes of "The Sex Lives of College Girls" premiere Thursday, Dec. 9 on HBO Max.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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