Before I can review this charming, unpredictable and warm-hearted new show from HBO Max, I have to address the title. The Sex Lives of College Girls is a terrible title for a show. It conjures up all sorts of things that, thankfully, the show doesn’t go anywhere near. It does the show an immediate disservice, serving more as a barrier to entry rather than an intriguing or clever way of luring people in.
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 first episode, 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 provocative 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.
You may feel you know what you’re getting when you start the series. The four girls feel initially more like archetypes rather than fleshed-out real people, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a show that never takes the obvious route, one that treats its characters with huge respect and never makes them the butt of the joke and one that feels fresh and exciting despite being in a setting we feel we’ve been in before.
The four leads are all well cast and have great chemistry with one another, especially after Leighton (who shows immediate displeasure at being forced to room with her new roommates after her friends from school reject her) stops being standoffish to the others a few episodes in. The show works because each of the four girls feels individual. It’s not about them butting heads, but about them navigating the often brutal reality of being in this new setting for the first time when they’re not quite emotionally prepared for it. The show is at its best when the foursome come together as friends and I appreciated the fact that the conflict that does arise throughout the series never impinges on the friendships here.
It’s also a show that doesn’t shy away from exploring each of the girls’ insecurities. 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 over-excited Bela when her new sex-positive persona starts veering into dangerous territory.
Of all the characters Bela feels the most like someone drawn from Kaling’s life, or more perhaps the life she wanted to have. She’s outgoing, keen to impress, and desperate to achieve her goal of joining the school’s well known and well-respected humour magazine. She dreams of performing on SNL and struggles to conform to what her Indian parents expect of her. Her journey to be accepted onto the magazine is a tricky one. One of the many smug and self-assured editors takes great pleasure in telling her, “We already have two women on staff, so …”
All the girls are incredibly likeable and the script is clever and punchy and always takes the stories in a different direction than you’ll be expecting.
Whitney’s secret affair with her married Soccer Coach doesn’t go down the obvious route as the show is always keen to portray these students as strong independent women. Even Kimberly’s unlikely relationship with Leighton’s older brother Nico works. Pauline Chalamet is the true star here. Everything about Kimberly works. Her impoverished background is touched on a few times but bought to the forefront in an episode where the girls take their visiting parents out for a meal at a fancy restaurant. All of the other girls can afford to treat their folks, but Kimberly and her mum feel awkward. The episode is one of the best of this first season and sees Whitney offering to pay for Kimberly’s meal. The fallout is surprisingly emotional.
The show is a clever mix of smaller personal stories and social issues. Each of the girls has their own challenges. When Bela finds out the true nature of the men on the magazine, she takes a stand and fights for women’s rights. When Leighton is forced to confront her prejudices her journey is fascinating.
It’s important to say, in an era of comedy where the laughs can sometimes feel too subtle or thin on the ground, this is a comedy that is properly funny and one that gets funnier the more time you spend with the characters. It’s all played with sincerity and feels grounded. It’s such a shame the show has that awful title as it makes it easy to dismiss. Give it a chance, and I’m confident you’ll fall under its spell like I did.
Sex Lives of College Girls Continues Sundays on ITV2 or is available now on the ITVHUB.