College is, essentially, a country club occupied by aging teenagers who have the mental capacity to understand stem cells and Sartre but lack the emotional capacity to talk to each other while sober. Mindy Kaling’s new HBO Max show The Sex Lives of College Girls understands this. Our heroines go to frat parties and emerge depressed, their sweaters saturated with pumpkin ale. They get friend-dumped. They fail to turn in problem sets. They have mediocre sex under dorm room posters of Seth Meyers.
Let’s call the title—The Sex Lives of College Girls—what it is: porny. I had a job in college that required me to teach freshman girls how to, in a pinch, convert a condom into a dental dam, and I still think that name is a bit much. But this is less Girls Gone Wild and more Socrates and Sexuality. Or: Tarts of the Liberal Arts. Yes, we hit the classics: keg stands, red cups, a “naked party.” But the show also covers, in an un-gritty, cheery way, things that actually happen in college. Our heroines get laid, but they also lay out rules about who has to clean their shared mini fridge. They hook up, but they also get hooked on new ideas and experiences. There’s intercourse, but there’s also discourse about wealth inequality. You get it!
We follow four roommates sharing a dorm during their first year at an elite New England college. Here a creator less interesting than Kaling would have introduced a quartet of stereotypes (the cheerleader! the nerd!). Instead we get Bela (Amrit Kaur): wildly horny but essentially a virgin, ambitious but not in the way her immigrant parents want her to be. She’s joined by Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a soccer star and senator’s daughter who’s been having good sex with terrible power dynamics. Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) is a small-town girl from Arizona who is simultaneously the show’s kindest and most overtly feminist character and also its most racist. And then there’s Leighton (Renee Rapp), who seems like a mean-girl cliché (Rapp also starred as Regina George in Mean Girls on Broadway) but reveals herself to be something much more interesting.
So which one is the fun, slutty character? Twist: They’re all fun, and they all like sex. Kimberly does what Leighton calls “grunt-y novice boinking.” Bela dumps a guy because he’s too into her sense of humor (What? Does he not appreciate her hot body???). Kimberly, Whitney, and Bela eye-fuck Leighton’s brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood), a boy with “a face you could write songs about.” There’s a tender, poignant queer storyline. There’s also a storyline that I really, really think the writers should have reconsidered, in which a character exchanges sexual favors to get ahead in a male-dominated field. (Like, sure, I guess that could happen, but the comedy doesn’t land—mostly, women in male fields just deal with harassment and discrimination.)