If You Like Sex Education, You’ll Love Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls
Mindy Kaling had a plan when she named her HBO Max Comedy. College Girls’ Sex Lives. It sounds like a phrase you’d see splashed across the cover of a 1950s pulp novel or a ’70s Times Square marquee—which is sure to get all kinds of subscribers clicking Play. Kaling has recently revealed the truth to this. Hollywood Reporter, is that she and co-creator Justin Noble “wanted to tell a story of four passionate, bright girls in college. The romantic stuff just felt like a good hook.” In fact, as TV shows about young adults go, this one is pretty wholesome.
Which is not to say that it isn’t also frank about, well, the sex lives of college girls. Premiering Nov. 18, this warm, observant and often gleefully raunchy show follows four very different freshman suitemates through their first months outside the nest at Vermont’s prestigious, fictional Essex College. As a creator, Kaling has historically struggled to rework, rather than just recycle, the clichés of genres that she knows inside and out (see: her rom-com series Mindy ProjectAnd Four weddings, and one funeral). Together with Netflix, she was a Netflix teen success. Never Have You Ever, College Girls It seems that her strength might lie in coming-of-age stories.
At the core of the show’s appeal are the mismatched main characters, each one lovable and frustrating in her own way. Fresh off a run as toxic alpha Regina George in Broadway’s The Mean Girls, Reneé Rapp plays rich New Yorker Leighton, an Essex legacy with a frat-boy older brother, sorority ambitions and a pair of high-school friends who dumped her as a roommate. Kimberly Chalamet (Pauline Chalamet), best known as her polar opposite. The King of Staten Island and being Timothée’s sister), a naive, working-class aspiring girlboss who’s still dating her hometown boyfriend and feels uncomfortable surrounded by so much wealth. Whitney (promising newcomer Alyah Chanelle Scott), a soccer phenom whose teammates don’t know she’s sleeping with the coach, is the daughter of a senator (Sherri Shepherd, in a fun recurring role).
While College Girls positions Kimberly as the regular-girl audience surrogate at first, its true hero—in my estimation, at least—is Bela (played by inevitable breakout Amrit Kaur), a recovering dweeb who’s determined to reinvent herself. “Four months ago I was an Indian loser with cystic acne, sweaty armpits and glasses,” she reminds her parents on move-in day. “But with one Lasik procedure, an Accutane prescription and medical-grade Botox injected into my armpits, I’m normal.” She’s hoping to get a coveted staff position at white-male-dominated campus humor magazine Catullan, whose alums tend to go on to distinguished comedy careers, despite her parents’ impression that they’re paying for a STEM degree. Consider that similar magazines play a critical role in Dear White People, it’s probably fair to ask whether comedy writers have an outsize view of those publications’ centrality to student life.) Bela just wants to get sex. As often as possible, she will sleep at night.
Kaling is known for her love of modifying stock characters and stories, so this could be the most successful fusion between classic and modern. We’ve seen plenty of white guys in this genre who fit Bela’s general description before, but female equivalents of any identity can be hard to find. Leighton refers to what happens when you act as a teenager. Gossip Girl character while suppressing everything about yourself that doesn’t fit the Blair Waldorf mold.
College Girls occasionally fails to resist squeezing low-hanging fruit; the humorless feminists who wax poetic about their ovaries during an open-mic night at the women’s center aren’t exactly revolutionizing campus comedy. Kaling makes old rites feel modern by changing the way the show views them. The girls do have first dates, crushes, and one-night stand flings. They bump up against everything from their parents’ expectations to misogyny (even when they’re not at frat parties). The characters learn from their mistakes and don’t repeat them in the after-school programs. The show is affirming of the suitemates’ nascent sexuality without pretending that they, at age 18, know exactly how to wield it or always end up having a good time with their partners.
Although they’re still trying to figure out who they’re going to be in the world, these girls have more going for them than their bodies or their willingness to hook up with boys—and they know it. They’re sensitive without being pathologically insecure and (with the sporadic exception of performatively jaded Leighton) resilient without being callous. As with many young women, but few today, when they are hurt they bounce back.
True to Kaling’s stated vision, we discover what the characters are passionate about Other than that dating, whether it’s sports or academics or their future careers. This show is incredibly insightful about issues of class in higher education. It covers everything from the gap between students who have work-study jobs to students whose parents are able to pay their monthly credit card bills, and the inequalities that elite high school graduates enjoy in the classroom. In an uncomfortable scene that rings true, at a fancy Parents Weekend dinner, Kimberly panics over her certainty that her mom won’t be able to afford their portion of the check.
Since a few decades ago, college and high-school students have accepted casual sex as a normal part of their culture. There’s no longer anything controversial about that kind of stuff on edgy dramas in the vein of SkinsAnd EuphoriaIn this show, self-destructive children do anything to get something. These shows often conflate promiscuity and unhappiness, particularly for women characters. The difference between what makes and is College Girls—along with Never Have You Ever, Netflix’s sweet teen sex-therapy dramedy The Sex Education and a handful of other recent TV series and movies—so refreshing is the way it lets characters chase libidinal gratification without implying that they’re out of control. Kaling demonstrates that experimentation is possible, even if it’s not healthy for these young, strong, and lovable women.