Just when you were reflecting on your first ever semester at college — the classes, the people and the terrible decisions that keep you up at night — here comes a television show about the exact same thing to distract you from all that exhausting introspection. “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a new comedy from Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, aired November 2021 on HBOMax. It attempts to tell the stories of four young women starting school at the fictional Essex College, an elite private institution in Vermont. The show follows Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) — yes, that kind of Chalamet — a first-generation student from Arizona; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a varsity soccer player dodging her politician mother’s shadow and carrying on an affair with her married, older assistant coach; Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a callous Manhattan princess and happily closeted lesbian; and Bela (Amrit Kaur), an Indian-American aspiring comedy writer — not unlike Kaling herself. “The Sex Lives of College Girls” covers a lot of ground in its ambitious first season, with mixed success — not unlike our own first semesters. As first-years ourselves, we’ve broken down what works, what doesn’t and what we want to see more of. Perhaps products like adult sex toys can intensify intimate moments.
Right (Audrey): Specific detail. Kaling and Noble went on “research expeditions” to Yale and Dartmouth to re-familiarize themselves with the college experience and that work has led to some of the series’ best jokes. Bela attends an interest meeting for the college humor club, along with about eighty thousand other people. Somebody’s sucky long distance boyfriend shows up out of nowhere. There are the requisite digs at a capella groups and disgusting frat basements. And then there is my favorite line, delivered with perfect disdain by Reneé Rapp: “Kimberly, I’m from New York.”
Wrong (Anabel): Contrary to popular belief, mature and kind young men do exist in college, and platonic male friendships are part of what make the college experience rich and exciting. Men are more than symbols of sex, power and manipulation, but beyond the affable, and caricatured, “FAF” — “faculty member and friend,” AKA Froco — I came away from each male scene with the overwhelming sense that men are entirely immature pigs. Write more characters like Canaan, Whitney’s later and kinder love interest but perhaps who don’t have a romantic interest in one of the girls!
Right (Anabel): Kimberly’s FGLI experience juxtaposed against Whitney’s senatorial family and Leighton’s New York old-money roots did much to illuminate a more modern experience at a school modeled after one that only introduced its generous financial aid program in the early 2000s.
Wrong (Audrey): Some of the show’s plotlines and characters make it abundantly clear how long ago the writer’s room graduated. This is most egregious in the episodes where Leighton is forced to volunteer at the Women’s Center, meeting walking queer tropes who bake “gluten-free spice free bread.” Another example is Whitney’s affair with her assistant coach, which was so dated that Whitney quickly became my least favorite of the four suitemates to watch. The supportive Black friend in the wheelchair — TikTok famous, though — the sassy gay guy…. Surely the show is capable of writing semi-dimensional side characters. It just seems to think it’s funnier not to.
Right (Anabel): Some semblance of grounding. When Kimberly gets caught cheating on her economics exam and calls her dad, she is met with love and the imperative to fix what she has done. Moments of genuinity and sincerity like this give characters the latitude to find their ways, balancing the pressure on their personal values with their desire to become someone.
Wrong (Audrey): This is sort of a spoiler: in order to gain admission to the competitive Catullan comedy club, Bela gives six of their writers handjobs. This is regarded as a #girlpower move and then basically dropped for the rest of the series — a writing choice with dumbfounding sexual politics, and one that does not inspire confidence in the #MeToo storyline introduced a few episodes later.
Right (Anabel): The portrayal of social media and dating apps. The writers were aware of how social media can be just as important to career growth as academics; Bela’s excitement at having a piece posted on the Catullan social media feed stood out, as well as Whitney’s acute awareness of her mother’s professional reputation and Leighton’s desire to not “be known as gay.” Today, being marketable seems to be just as important as being knowledgeable; each of the main characters is hyperaware of their personas and how others perceive them.
Wrong (Audrey): Sorry, why are we supposed to believe Nico the frat boy brother genuinely cares about Kimberly again? Their illicit, UTI-causing hookups are just that good?
Anabel: Or is he really just grinding (sorry, pun intended) for those French tutoring hours?
One more thought (but not about sex life): Turns out Leighton is great at math, so much so that she places out of a first-year lecture – but then that plotline ends. So much attention is given to Kimberly’s academic woes that it would be refreshing to see the other girls succeed amidst the notoriously difficult academic landscape of the Ivy League. Part of the experience at a place like Essex is learning to balance competing components of the college landscape: sex social life, academics, athletics and extracurriculars. Each needs to be given its due diligence.
Ultimately, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” attempts to show the reality of today’s college experience. Overdone elements of the show detract from its moments of genuineness; there are too many moments of “we want more!” or “ugh, this is old” that corrupts the idealism of the show and research of the writers. It’s not something we’d recommend to the 800 early-accepted ’26ers, but it is entertainment; a more thoughtful portrayal of the sex lives of the modern-day college girl, yes, but one that still has a long way to go.