Just when you’re thinking about your very first semester of college — the classes, the people, and the horrible decisions that are keeping you up at night — here comes a TV show about the exact same thing, to take your mind off all that tiring introspection. The Sex Lives of College Girls, a new comedy from Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, aired on HBOMax in November 2021. It attempts to tell the stories of four young women attending school at the fictional Essex College, an elite private institution in Vermont. The show follows Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) — yes, that kind of Chalamet — a first-generation college student from Arizona; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a varsity soccer player who avoids her politician mother’s shadow and has an affair with her married, elderly assistant coach; Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a callous Manhattan princess and happily withdrawn lesbian; and Bela (Amrit Kaur), an Indian-American aspiring comedy writer not unlike Kaling herself. covers a lot of ground in its ambitious first season, with mixed success – not unlike our own first semesters. As first graders ourselves, we broke down what works, what doesn’t, and what we want to see more of.
Right (Audrey): specific detail. Kaling and Noble went on “research expeditions” to Yale and Dartmouth to re-acquaint themselves with the college experience, and that work has resulted in some of the show’s best jokes. Bela attends a college humor club interest meeting with about 80,000 other people. Someone’s crappy long distance friend shows up out of nowhere. There’s the requisite digging into a cappella groups and disgusting student basements. And then there’s my favorite line, uttered with utter contempt by Reneé Rapp: “Kimberly, I’m from New York.”
Wrong (Anabel): Contrary to popular belief, there are mature and friendly young men in college, and platonic male friendships are part of what makes the college experience rich and exciting. Men are more than symbols of sex, power, and manipulation, but beyond the affable and caricatured “FAF” — “Faculty Member and Friend,” AKA Froco — I left every male scene with the overwhelming feeling that men are completely immature pigs. Write more characters like Canaan, Whitney’s later and kinder love interest, but who may not have a romantic interest in either girl!
Right (Anabel): Kimberly’s FGLI experience in contrast to Whitney’s Senatorial family and Leighton’s old-money New York roots did much to shed light on a more modern experience at a school modeled after one that only introduced its lavish financial aid program in the early 2000s had.
Wrong (Audrey): Some of the show’s storylines and characters make it clear how long the writer’s room has been graduating. This is most egregious in the episodes where Leighton is forced to volunteer at the women’s center and meet walking queer tropes who bake “gluten-free, spice-free bread.” Another example is Whitney’s affair with her assistant coach, which was so old-fashioned that Whitney quickly became my least favorite of the four roommates. The supportive black friend in a wheelchair – TikTok famous though – the cheeky gay… Certainly the show is capable of writing half-dimensional supporting characters. It just seems to think it’s funnier not to.
Right (Anabel): Some semblance of grounding. When Kimberly is caught cheating on her audit and calls her father, she encounters love and the imperative to fix what she’s done. Moments of genuineness and sincerity like this give characters the leeway to find their way and balance the pressure on their personal values with their desire to become someone.
Wrong (Audrey): That’s kind of a spoiler: In order to get into the competitive Catullan comedy club, Bela gives six of her writers handjobs. This is seen as a #girlpower move and then basically dropped for the rest of the series – a writing choice with startling sexual politics and one that doesn’t inspire confidence in the #MeToo storyline introduced a few episodes later.
Right (Anabel): The representation of social media and dating apps. The authors were aware that social media can be just as important to career growth as academics; Bela’s excitement at having an article published on the Catullan social media feed stood out, as did Whitney’s keen awareness of her mother’s professional reputation and Leighton’s desire “not to be known as gay.” Being marketable seems to be as important today as knowledge; Each of the main characters is very aware of their personas and how they are perceived by others.
Wrong (Audrey): Sorry, why are we supposed to think Nico the frat boy brother really cares about Kimberly again? Your illegal UTI-causing compounds are just that good?
Anabel: Or is he really just grinding (sorry, pun intended) for those French tutoring sessions?
One more thought (but not on sex life): Turns out Leighton is great at math, so much so that she drops out of a first-year class — but then this storyline ends. So much attention is paid to Kimberly’s academic struggles that it would be refreshing to see the other girls succeed amid the Ivy League’s notoriously difficult academic landscape. Part of the experience in a place like Essex is learning to balance competing components of the college landscape: social sex life, academics, athletics and extracurricular activities. Everyone needs to get their due diligence.
Ultimately “The Sex Lives of College Girls” Attempts to show the reality of today’s college experience. Over-the-top elements of the show detract from its moments of authenticity; There are too many moments of “We want more!” or “Oh, that’s old,” corrupting the idealism of the show and the writers’ research. It’s not something we would recommend the 800 early accepted 26s, but it’s entertainment; A more thoughtful portrayal of the modern college girl’s sex life, yes, but one that has a long way to go.