‘Sex Lives of College Girls’ on HBO Max is one of 2021’s best comedies

December 9, 2021
Leighton (Reneé Rapp, left), Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) and Bela are strangers turned suitemates in "The Sex Lives of College Girls."
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Spoiler alert! Contains minor details about Season 1 of “The Sex Lives of College Girls” on HBO Max. 

Is there anything Mindy Kaling can’t do? 

The prolific actress/writer/producer/director has created a mini-TV empire since her scene-stealing days as Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s “The Office,” which ended its nine-season run in 2013.

On Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” which later moved to Hulu, she deftly wed a swoony rom-com with a droll and downright weird workplace comedy. Her short-lived NBC show “Champions” was a showcase for “Project” standouts Anders Holm and Fortune Feimster, and introduced many viewers to the dynamic Josie Totah (now on Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell”). And then, of course, there’s Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” which sneaks moving meditations on grief and identity into a pop culture-savvy high-school series. 

They’ve all teed up Kaling’s brilliant “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” whose Grade A first season ends Thursday with two new episodes on HBO Max. Co-created with Justin Noble (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), the streaming comedy follows four college roommates at a fictional New England university: Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), a self-assured soccer star who’s secretly sleeping with the assistant coach; Bela (Amrit Kaur), an unbridled aspiring comedian whose parents think she’s studying neurobiology; Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), a wide-eyed over-achiever just out of a long-term relationship; and Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a rich girl whose frosty exterior masks a soft side. 

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While plenty of TV comedies have been set at college – “Community,” “Grown-ish” and “Dear White People,” among them – what’s remarkable about “Sex Lives” is just how fully realized these characters are from the moment their parents drop them off at school.

Like “Never Have I Ever” heroine Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), Bela bucks tropes of the “perfect Indian” student, diving headfirst into the frat parties and twin-size beds of her chiseled peers. Leighton, who is queer and closeted, reckons with her sorority ambitions as she sneaks around on a hookup app and eventually lands a girlfriend – a reality that hits close to home for any of us who have felt the need to hide our sexuality. 

And in the show’s pitch-perfect sixth episode, a tense parents’ weekend dinner forces Whitney and Kimberly to confront insecurities about their families. Kimberly worries that her cash-strapped mom (Nicole Sullivan) can’t afford the upscale restaurant they chose, and quietly tries to use Leighton’s credit card to foot the bill. Whitney, meanwhile, has a rare moment of connection with her emotionally aloof mother, Evette (Sherri Shepherd), a no-nonsense U.S. senator who fiercely stands up for her daughter against Leighton’s snide parents. 

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But even as “Sex Lives” tackles weighty issues of race, class and predatory behavior, it never loses its light touch. The show will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever worked an on-campus job or fought for a spot in a student-run club, lovingly poking fun at everything from feminist poetry readings to awkward RA meetings. (The embarrassment of a reeking dorm-room fridge is all too real.) 

Most of all, the writers’ genuine affection for these characters is evident in every frame. Rather than waste time on petty in-fighting or “Odd Couple”-style hijinks, “Sex Lives” understands that your freshman-year roommates are your life rafts, for better or worse. Whether they’re slacking off in class, drunkenly defacing school property or hooking up with beefcakes in professors’ offices, the series’ central quartet are refreshingly nonjudgmental, played with infectious chemistry by Chalamet, Scott, Kaur and Rapp.

And unlike stylized teen soaps “Euphoria” and “Gossip Girl,” the show’s many sex scenes are equal parts tasteful and tantalizing, with an emphasis on female pleasure. 

Because multiple episodes were released weekly, “Sex Lives” is wrapping its first season after less than a month. And without the marketing muscle of a streamer like Netflix, the show has seemingly flown under the radar, despite effusive praise from critics and Twitter users. But with a second season just announced this week, there’s no better time than now to catch up with the most delightful new discovery of the TV season, which further proves that no one writes young women better than Kaling. 

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