There is no shortage of shows that take place in high school, “Freaks and Geeks” and “Sex Education,” to name a couple of the best. Nor is there any want for shows in that 20-something gray zone, like “Friends” and “Broad City.”
But the college experience has yet to get its due in television. Maybe that’s no accident: Who wants to mine four years of intoxication, midterms and finals, and burgeoning sexuality?
“The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a teen comedy-drama co-created by Mindy Kaling and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine″ writer Justin Noble, attempts to close that gap, chronicling the lives of four roommates as they embark on their freshman year at Essex College, a fictional institution set in a New England town. The show premieres Thursday on HBO Max with two episodes, with new episodes arriving each week after that.
The blunt title of the show (I saw six of its 10 episodes) piqued my interest. I am a senior in college, and the show speaks to the inelegance of the female gaze that I’ve witnessed and experienced. It celebrates the gracelessness of 18-year-olds hungry for fun, freedom, and, as the title suggests, another f-word that’s not fit to print. Imagine if a Judy Blume novel were set in idyllic Vermont and its characters had access to Instagram.
The roommate quartet proves an odd bunch. Leighton, played by Reneé Rapp (she was Regina George in the musical adaptation of “Mean Girls” on Broadway), is an entitled sorority girl wannabe, but she’s leading a double life of sorts. Bela (Amrit Kaur in a role that feels like a grown-up Devi from Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”) is trying desperately to have as much sex as possible and to break into the boys club of the college’s prestigious comedy magazine. Kimberly, played by a lovably cloddish Pauline Chalamet (sister of Timothée; once you see the resemblance, you can’t unsee it), grapples with financial insecurity at a college full of one-percenters. Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is a star soccer player and the daughter of a United States senator.
Notice any tropes? I did. Despite its charms, “Sex Lives” can feel like a show that’s about 10 years past its prime. It hits all the marks of a hackneyed teen soap, including the cringe-worthy use of slang (do we really need to talk in emojis?). There’s the blonde who doesn’t “eat for enjoyment,” as Leighton quips, the overachiever embroiled in a forbidden affair, and the dorky girl pining after the jock in a relentless will-they-or-won’t-they. Haven’t we graduated to something more nuanced?
The attempts at exploring social justice issues also often feel surface level. In one scene, Bela, who is Indian American, is told explicitly that there are only a few spots set aside for female writers on her college’s magazine, an act of exclusion that might have been more powerful if it had resembled the more sinister microaggressions that run rampant on college campuses. In another, a cash-strapped Kimberly vows to keep the tags on an expensive dress so that she can return it later, only to rip off the tags once her crush compliments her on it. The episodes range in length from about 25 to 50 minutes, and I wish the writers had used this flexibility to linger more on these topics and less on the “naked party” in the second episode.
If you can accept its anachronisms, the show has its moments — especially when it homes in on the relationships among the four roommates — like the antics that ensue when the dorm’s mini fridge stinks and none of the girls wants to take the blame. Or at a dinner between all the girls and their parents, when dynamics of race, gender, and class finally have some weight to them.
I hoped for more of these bonding scenes, but they’ve got to get to the sex, after all. There’s actually not as much of it as the show’s title might suggest, and the scenes of intimacy are handled tastefully. Especially the later ones with Leighton, which Rapp navigates with poise (I won’t give away her bedfellow).
Despite some clunky writing, I am curious to see how each character’s story unfolds, which gives me hope for a potential season two. I can envision a second season where the show musters up a little more authenticity and makes the four roommates a little less ― as the kids would say — fake. But if the show is renewed, I’d offer the same advice I’d give any college freshman: Don’t try so hard.
THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS
Starring: Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur
On: HBO Max, premieres Nov. 18 with two episodes
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org