When it comes to the title of the new HBO Max comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls, the first half may be provocative, but the second half is where the show’s true appeal lies.
Don’t get me wrong. The series, created by Mindy Kaling and Brooklyn Nine-Nine vet Justin Noble, and focusing on a quartet of freshman dorm roommates at a prestigious New England college — aspiring comedy writer Bela (Amrit Kaur); eager-to-please work-study student Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet); soccer star Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott); and mean girl Leighton (Reneé Rapp) — doesn’t skimp on the sex. In the series premiere alone, one of the women brags that she performed six hand jobs in a single night, another annoys the group by having sex in their suite’s common room, and the other two are revealed to each be engaged in sexual relationships they’re keeping secret from the rest. A later episode features several of the women attending a “naked party.” The series’ opening scene, even, finds Kimberly and her parents arriving on campus to find a young couple talking about how much they want to have sex right then and there, prompting Kimberly’s mother (Nicole Sullivan) to complain to the boy, “I can see your erection.”
So, yes, Sex Lives leans into its subject matter in lots of amusing and unapologetic ways. But it also joins a relatively small but growing subgenre of series focusing on college life, an area television has largely ignored over the years.
The small screen has rarely lacked for dramas and comedies about high school. 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. Kimberly, for instance, feels self-conscious about what she can afford to spend versus her well-to-do roommates, while the group as a whole occasionally step in to warn former nerd Bela when her new sex-positive persona starts veering into reckless territory.
Bela is aggressively, at times hilariously, horny — “Young Stalin could get it!” she declares while studying a history textbook — though the more cringe-inducing scenes with her tend to involve her shameless pursuit of a spot on the school’s prestigious humor magazine. But the deck is so thoroughly stacked against her there — one of the smug editors warns her, “We already have two women on staff, so …” — that even her relentlessly careerist approach, and obliviousness to all social norms and niceties, feels endearing after a while.
The show as a whole is a mix of larger social issues and smaller personal stories. Whitney, for instance, grows frustrated when she learns of all the perks the inferior boys’ soccer team gets compared with her championship-contender squad, while Leighton’s horizons are reluctantly broadened when she gets assigned to do community service at the campus women’s center. Largely, though, it’s about each member of the quartet figuring out who she really is and what she wants to do with her life. All of this is played sincerely, but with healthy servings of slapstick and character comedy.
The parents — including Sherri Shepherd as Whitney’s progressive politician mother and Rob Huebel as Leighton’s wealthy father — figure into things from time to time. But for the most part, the women are left to figure things out on their own — which is one of the defining themes of both college life and college shows. This is a very good and fun example of the latter.
The first two episodes of Sex Lives of College Girls begin streaming on Nov. 18 on HBO Max, with three more episodes apiece debuting on Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, and the season’s final two installments on Dec. 9. I’ve seen six of the 10 episodes.