Sex Is Just Part of the Equation in Mindy Kaling’s ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’

A private New England college is the setting for Mindy Kaling’s latest series, “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” This show is just that, following a foursome of young women as they navigate their newfound freedoms and sexualities. Most films and series focusing on teen dating and sex are set in the world of high school, and this is because almost everyone attends high school but not everyone goes to college. However, Kaling and co-creator Justin Noble saw the potential of a college campus setting, because it is one of the few places where young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and social classes live together in close quarters. But just because a college student is outside of the cocoon of their parents’ home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to transform into a sexually confident butterfly overnight.

Adapting to their new lives at Essex College is a process for the four suitemates. Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) is a valedictorian from a small, predominately white town in Arizona. She’s still with her high school boyfriend, but that predictably doesn’t last long. Meanwhile, chipper Indian-American Bela (Amrit Kaur) has two goals: to write for the Catullan, Essex’s humor magazine that is obviously based off of the Harvard Lampoon, and to finally become sex positive in practive, not just theory. Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Sott), the sole Black suitemate, is the daughter of a senator (Sherri Shepherd), which we are led to believe makes her a minor campus celebrity. A soccer player, she gets entangled in an ill-advised affair with her coach, Dalton (James Morosini). Rounding out the group is Leighton (Renée Rapp), a wealthy legacy student who is shocked to discover that she isn’t rooming with her two best friends from high school. When she confronts these girls, they give a surprising reason for ditching her. They don’t feel close to her because of the walls she puts up. As we get to know Leighton, her reason for being secretive comes out –– She’s a closeted lesbian.

Despite the show’s title, sex isn’t the sole focus of “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” It’s really about these young women adjusting to adulthood, and they all seem to be fish out of water. An issue with the early episodes is that they are all so cringey, with Whitney being the possible exception. Kimberly, for example, tries to relate to Canaan (Christopher Meyer), a Black colleague at her work-study job, by randomly bringing up Jay-Z, and that’s just the beginning. Yes, adjusting to a diverse environment is part of her arc, but people have been canceled from Twitter for way less. Leighton, meanwhile, keeps reminding everyone how rich she is, and Bela’s obsession with being accepted by the Catullan, despite the sexism and racism exhibited by the white male upperclassmen in charge, is obnoxious at times.

The series’ biggest weakness is the dialogue, which is way too on the nose. Bela, when introducing her parents, calls them her Indian parents. Later, when she’s at the Catullan orientation, the guys there seem a little too self-aware. An alum brags about working on an all-white sitcom, and, afterwards, another guy blatantly tells her that they have limited “female spots.” Some of the references feel dated. For example, Bela’s comedy heroes are people who were on “SNL” when she was still in diapers.

The best moments are the ones in which the characters do what’s unexpected of them. Bela makes a misguided sexual choice at a party hosted by the Catullan that leads to some consequences and personal growth. Whitney has better luck when she propositions Canaan at a party and has a satisfying experience. Afterwards, she reveals that she just “pretended” to be a confident woman and it worked out in her favor.

After the first two episodes, it still feels to early to say if “The Sex Lives of College Girls” has staying power. Hopefully, Kaling/Noble and the ladies will hit their respective strides as the season progresses. 

The Sex Lives of College Girls” season one begins streaming Nov. 18 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.