The HBO Max series may have a NSFW name, but it’s much more about the sweet agony of growing up.
Despite sounding like something one might hesitate to Google outside of a private browser, HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls is a fairly wholesome dramedy about four young women starting off their adult lives as freshmen in college. Admittedly, yes, college freshmen who do have sex, but wholesome just the same. Created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble (who also write many of the episodes) TSLoCG quickly overcomes the gimmicky nature of its title.
The college girls in question are Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), an earnest innocent from Gilbert, Arizona, though she’s written at times like she just emerged from a one-stoplight village. She’s also the “poor” (read: not upper-middle class) roommate. Senator’s daughter Whitney (Aylah Chanelle Scott) hails from Washington State and is a rising soccer star. Bela (Amrit Kaur), the Mindy Kaling stand-in, has Indian parents who want her to pursue a medical career. Her dream, however, is to be a comedy writer. Oh, and to get laid. More than any of the other friends, Bela wants to ensure the show’s title becomes very literal.
Rounding out the foursome is Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a rich girl legacy student appalled to learn of her room assignment with the rest of our protagonists. See, Leighton signed up to room with her “best friends” from high school, only to learn that they’d specifically requested not to room with Leighton. But, after some advice from her older brother and fellow student Nico (former warlock Gavin Leatherwood), Leighton begins to come around. Soon the fact that her abrasive personality might be masking some deeper secrets stands revealed.
Secrets are one thing the four immediately have in common. Secrets about who they’re sleeping with. About who they want to be sleeping with. About what choices they’re stumbling over. Bela, in particular, makes a whopper of a bad call in an early episode.
The four attend Essex College, the sort of beautiful tree-lined campus full of gorgeous people. In particular, gorgeous shirtless jogging men, as wide-eyed Kimberly learns on move-in day.
Once TSLoCG smooths out its first episode lumps, what follows is a funny and often touching look at a group of friends at a very particular point in their lives.
It’s the kind of school most TV and film characters seem to end up at, and that’s far from the only trope on hand. Wealthy students scoff at Kimberly and her work-study coworkers (do people really not have to work during college?). The freshmen residents meet and greet is full of cliches–the flamboyant gay man, the Tiktok influencer, the Swedish RA who doesn’t understand any of the jokes. More than one relationship secret is of the “Knew it!” variety.
Still, once TSLoCG smooths out its first episode lumps, what follows is a funny and often touching look at a group of friends at a very particular point in their lives. Unlike the high school foibles of Kaling’s other comedy/drama Never Have I Ever or the post-college exploits of another HBO foursome in Girls, TSLoCG focuses on what is, for many, the first time that they’ve been sort of independent. Sure, Bela has to ask her parents for “books and underwear” money. Yes, Leighton clearly feels the weight of her parents’ expectations in a way that older people (sometimes) don’t. But they’re also living on their own, making their own decisions. Even if many of those decisions immediately turn to bite them.
The main ensemble cast is excellent. Pauline Chalamet (yes, those Chalamets) is the standout of the four. Both the script and Chalamet herself do a remarkable job showing a rare realistic awkward girl on television. Kimberly’s lack of success in romance is not linked to her appearance, even as it would be easy to portray her as the “unattractive” one. There’s no taking down her hair and taking off her glasses here. Instead, the show demonstrates she’s an oddball who often says the most uncomfortable thing at the wrong time. Chamalet also does a great job playing up Kimberly’s shaky grasp of the French language (in which she ends up being tutored by Nico), given that Chalamet herself is fluent in French.
Despite the pulp novel feel of its name, The Sex Lives of College Girls is a glossy and cheeky (but not entirely sex-crazed) look at a very odd point in many people’s lives. You’re not old enough to rent a car, but you’re told you’re an adult now. But also you’re young so have fun! While still working very hard. It’s not all that surprising that each of the girls has had at least one sobbing breakdown. Adulthood is hard, and it’s good to have friends.
On move-in day, a horrified Bela sees her mother brought along Bela’s childhood teddy bear. However, when her mother offers to just throw him away, Bela immediately protests. “Just take him home and put him on a shelf,” she instructs, kissing the bear on its nose. In her eagerness to grow up and re-invent, she’s yet to realize that in the adult world, no one cares if you still have your teddy bear. Hell, has anyone read the news today? We all need one. That’s just one of those lessons that Bela and her friends have to learn over time.
The Sex Lives of College Girls is hosting floor parties now on HBO Max.