Coming of age stories are typically set in teendom, well before most of us come of age; sometimes, a series picks up in the moments just following college graduation. “The Sex Lives of College Girls” takes on that seldom captured holding pen separating childhood from the rest of life and deftly summarizes its pervasive truths: that freshman year friendships are largely accidents of dorm geography and that no matter how committed you are to ditching your high school persona on move-in day, you can’t escape your own bones — at least not by homecoming.
The new HBO Max comedy from Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble follows four suitemates from their first day at leafy Essex College, an elite New England liberal arts school with spires enough to recall the alma maters of the show’s creators (Dartmouth and Yale, respectively). Leighton, played by Broadway’s Regina George, Reneé Rapp, is a closeted uptown snob. Pauline Chalamet (sister to Timothée) is Kimberly, a scholarship student with insecurities as oppressive as her FAFSA loan. Alyah Chanelle Scott’s Whitney is a college athlete whose U.S. Senator mom overshadows her arrival on campus, and Bela, played by Amrit Kaur, is a New Jersey native as eager to break into comedy as she is to shed the conservative constraints of her Desi upbringing. The mysteries of the room assignment process lend the mismatched quartet plausibility, and the actors’ easy chemistry does the rest. I can already see them 10 years from now, maybe at Whitney’s wedding, thanking the campus housing gods for forcing their Popov vodka into the same mini-fridge.
Because as much as “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is about sex, it’s also not about sex at all. Each girl is a collage of the types of girls you’ll find on these types of campuses. I was a fretful Kimberly who wanted to be a Whitney; my freshman year roommate is, to this day, the coolest Whitney I’ve ever met. It’s interesting to note that for all the show’s Gen Z specific sex positivity, watching it as a millennial was a nostalgic experience rather than a revelatory one — a timeless counterpoint to shows like “Euphoria” or even, to a lesser extent, the “Gossip Girl” reboot. The girls’ sensibilities are of the moment, yes, but their trials, at least across the six episodes available to critics, are the co-ed classics: breaking up with your high school sweetheart, disappointing your parents, that weird smell emanating from the common room.
Reneé Rapp and Rob Huebel in “The Sex Lives of College Girls”
David Giesbrecht / HBO Max
Which isn’t to say the girls don’t have sex. They want to have it, and they do have it, and, when they do, they usually feel positive about it. But the show is more tender and compelling when it smartly cuts away from sex and attends to the hard realities of wanting itself. Horndog Bela’s insistent drive to make the Essex comedy troupe sees her confronting how much misogyny she’ll endure to get it. Kimberly reckons with the constant, low-level ache of not fitting in and Whitney, in the series’ least imaginative storyline, pursues a secret relationship with her coach. Having sex is the easy part in this ivy-clad, parent-free oasis. The rest is an obstacle course.
Except perhaps for Leighton, who gets the show’s most complex arc. By day, the legacy student poses as straight for the tweed twin-setted sorority crowd; by night, she hits the lesbian dating apps. “The Sex Lives of College Girls” examines her dilemma holistically: maintaining the facade, for example, makes her bitchy to her roommates. The conflict is ostensibly in her sex life, but the cost of her secrecy isn’t the loss of romantic love — it’s missing out on the intimacies of friendship. The performances of the central quartet are all strong, but Rapp’s twitchy Leighton stands out. It doesn’t hurt that she gets the most cutting lines, though Bela will surely win the biggest laughs. Kaur plays her sex-obsession as a form of giddy rebellion. She wants sex the way a kid chaotically wants what’s on the top shelf, whatever it is.
Well-made and propulsive, the series has me wondering why more shows aren’t set in this liminal space between senior prom and first jobs. “The Sex Lives of College Girls” keeps things light. No one is bed-locked with homesickness; no one is too intimidated to show up to the frat party in the first place. In some ways, Kaling and Noble have approached the college campus less like a navel-gazing bildungsroman than a workplace comedy — unsurprising from two writers who have, collectively, worked on “The Office,” “The Mindy Project,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Bela, Leighton, Whitney, and Kimberly are each afforded their own clear lanes. Instead of group in-fighting, the conflicts at play are the small dramas of closed worlds, where trivialities like social media flirting and wearing the right outfit take on outsized importance. The joy of “The Sex Lives of College Girls” doesn’t come from watching the suitemates grow into friends but from watching them already out there doing it — leaning on each other and borrowing from each other with the lightning fast familiarity it takes a dorm room to generate.
“The Sex Lives of College Girls” premieres its first two episodes Thursday, November 18 on HBO Max. Three new episodes will be released November 25 and December 2, leading up to the final two episodes of the season on December 9.
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