Television has long had a fixation with the high school years, from teen soaps (Gossip Girl, Riverdale, One Tree Hill) to campy romps (Glee) to dramas that are essentially prestige teen soaps (Euphoria). But for the countless portrayals of American high school life, very few series have attempted to capture the subsequent four years at university.
That’s in part because college remains a much less universal experience than high school; less than a third of Americans have an undergraduate degree. And it’s in part because there are fewer common templates for a college story; ABC Family’s Greek (2007-2011) “cracked the college TV show in a way no series had before or has since,” wrote Alison Herman in a retrospective for The Ringer on the 10th anniversary of its finale earlier this year, by focusing on the heightened emotions and inflated self-importance amid the fraught and often ridiculous subset of sororities and fraternities.
HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, the latest production from Mindy Kaling, similarly aims for universal feelings of the transition years through a narrow and ego-inflated slice of college, with middling, uneven results. The 10-part series, co-created by Kaling and Justin Noble (writing alum of Brooklyn 99 and Never Have I Ever, Kaling’s debut high school series for Netflix) gestures toward the general – the idiosyncratic, messy, confusing, headstrong, incipient sex lives of young women who are longer teenagers but very much not adults – yet depicts a highly rarefied college experience.
Fictional Essex College, all gothic buildings, autumn-flecked quads and preppy sweaters in Vermont, is clearly modeled on Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth, the small Ivy League college in New Hampshire; the four college girls of the title, random freshmen roommates and oil-and-water friends, are loose sketches of private school admissions checkboxes.
There’s Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a New York legacy student and mashup of Blair Waldorf and Regina George (who Rapp played in the Broadway adaptation of Mean Girls) with the twist of closeted sexual identity. Leighton’s older brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood), senior frat bro and debonair French tutor, catches the eye of the awkward, earnest Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet, sister of Timotheé), a straight-laced valedictorian from small-town Arizona on financial aid and a work-study plan.
Soccer star Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), the daughter of a US senator, struggles to escape her mother’s influence, fit in to an overwhelmingly white, and juggle an affair with her assistant coach. Bela (Amrit Kaur), a comedy diehard who tells her conservative, Indian immigrant parents that she’s studying neurobiology, reads as reflection of Kaling’s youth – sexually inexperienced and hungry, for boys and for entry into an elite humor magazine.
The girls are initially skeptical of each other, particularly Leighton, whose bitchy and entitled shield is so thick it takes several episodes to crack. Yet they all have sex on their mind – the sex they crave but aren’t having (Bela), are waiting for (Kimberly), are hiding (Leighton), are getting burned by (Whitney); the sex they’re talking about at frat parties and dining hall debriefs, and the sexism that barricades the social spaces and comedy clubs. The four leads have spoken about their work with an intimacy coordinator, now thankfully becoming standard in productions, and it shows; direction by Kabir Akhtar, Zoe Cassavetes, and David Gordon Green includes oblique nudity – bare backs, side boobs, butts – that never feels exploitative or undue.
The Sex Lives of College Girls shares several qualities with Never Have I Ever, for better or for worse: its tone skitters and jolts in the first episodes, trying to force horniness and deliver punchlines with jokes that belies its creators age (the pilot includes a bit on Ben Affleck’s Phoenix tattoo; one character is obsessed with Seth Meyers). The obligatory heartthrob looks years older the girls. The actors are winning but struggle to supersede overdrawn quirks that begin to soften midway through the season, as their friendships begin to bloom (six of the ten half-hour episodes were available for review).
And like the Netflix series, The Sex Lives of College Girls is defined and buffered by self-absorption, from Leighton and Bela’s bullheadedness to its exclusive setting. The Ivy League-ness of the Essex College experience makes the whole enterprise feel a bit like a narcissism project, one that tries to reframe its creators origin story for Gen Z yet feels more like a parody of schticks for a limited audience. Full disclosure: I went to one of these schools, yet even as the micro-target demo, I’d much rather see the messiness, pressures, and revelations of sex filtered through frat houses, or game days, or the weight of anonymity (and debt) that characterizes college life for the bulk of American undergraduates.
Maybe that’s for another show – if The Sex Lives of College Girls knows one thing, it’s that young women have a near bottomless and underfed appetite for material that captures their desires, as spiky and self-defeating and euphoric as they can be. Like college, the series can be a bumpy ride, but offers enough promise to transcend its freshman offering.