‘The Sex Lives Of College Girls’ TV Review: Half Feminist Progress, Half ‘90s Tropes Make Up Mindy Kaling’s Latest

Kudos to Mindy Kaling for staying committed to wacky half-hour comedies about women and their dating lives. She knows how her bread is buttered, and it’s by female protagonists of color, white male love interests, an array of pop culture references, and cliched hijinks about what men and women just don’t understand about each other. “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which Kaling co-created with Justin Noble, is never provocative in either gender dynamics or relationship configurations, but it is thoroughly nonchallenging, all “You go, girl!” high-fives, “Fight the patriarchy!” fist-bumps, going-out dresses from Forever 21, and jokes about women’s-studies majors. There is some level of comfort, and easy watchability, to a series that asks so little of its viewers while delivering an array of familiar conceits, and that sweet spot is where “The Sex Lives of College Girls” lives.

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Kaling and Noble, who worked together on the high school-focused series “Never Have I Ever,” bump up in age a couple of years for “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which is set at the fictional Essex College, a private school in Vermont whose student body is mostly white and mostly rich (and seemingly inspired by Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth College). All the college storylines you can predict play out over the series’ first six episodes, which were provided for review. The girls crush on guys who seem out of their league. They drink too much at a frat party. They lie to their parents, who are either overprotective and overly demanding, or negligent and absent. No middle ground exists. And they attend classes, theoretically, at some point.

What does “The Sex Lives of College Girls” want to say about this time, and about how it shapes you? There is a somewhat bland progressivism at play because you would immediately think that a show titled “sex lives” would, you know, have a fair amount of sex. This is HBO Max, after all. You can do anything on streaming! And some of these relationships are initially provocative: an athlete and her coach, a young woman and her roommate’s older brother, various dating-app hookups with strangers. But “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is almost halfhearted in sketching out these scenarios because its focus is more on romance, friendship, and connection than sensuality or eroticism. The show itself ends up being PG-13 stuff, enamored with boasting about sleeping around instead of actually doing it. Maybe that braggadocio syncs up with the awkwardness of settling into your freshman year and fumbling through your first sexual experiences. Ultimately, though, its conservatism makes for a series that tells rather than shows, and that disconnect keeps the show firmly in comedy territory without venturing into anything more dramatic or unwieldy.

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The series follows four young women randomly assigned as freshman-year roommates who come from, you guessed it, different walks of life. Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), firmly working class and from a small town in Arizona, arrives at college as a virgin devoted to her high school boyfriend and to becoming a lawyer. Bela (Amrit Kaur), a former nerd whose parents want her to be a doctor, is reinventing herself as a sex-positive comedy writer who dreams of either becoming Seth Meyers or sleeping with him. New Yorker Leighton (Reneé Rapp), who seemingly walks into Essex straight from OG “Gossip Girl,” is aghast that her high school besties cut her out of their rooming arrangement and that she’s now living with randos. And soccer star Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), desperate to escape the shadow of her U.S. Senator mother (Sherri Shepherd), spars early with her teammates, who resent her extra playing time.

None of these girls is very similar to each other, but they unexpectedly bond and become friends because the show demands they transcend differences like ethnicity, race, or class. If that sounds dismissive, it’s because “The Sex Lives of College Girls” engages with those real-life divisions only up to the point before when such conversations would become challenging. None of these characters has to really grapple with their mistakes; the show lathers its characters with forgiveness. Lily-white Kimberly believes her fellow work-study students’ tall tales of drug-addicted relatives and single parenthood, but her momentary shame then becomes a climactic scene of defending her friends against bougie legacy students. Pretentious Leighton invites her women’s-studies friends to a frat party and is shocked when guys act like jerks but is then warmly pardoned by the women because they had fun anyway. Whitney and Bela both make self-destructive choices, but the series presents their actions as spontaneous rather than reckless. Comedies don’t have to be bleak, but “The Sex Lives of College Girls” often bites off more than it can chew with weighty, serious topics that then receive superficial treatment.

But for as formulaic as the series’ writing can be (with typical liberal fodder, such as jokes about being triggered and complaints about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings), its ensemble hits the required comedic beats. They enliven and energize, with the core foursome clicking together as young women whose protectiveness over each other is nearly immediate. Chalamet is appropriately clumsy as the initially out-of-place Kimberly, and her transformation over six episodes from self-deprecating to more self-assured is subtle but effective. The gung-ho Kaur works as the “I’ll try anything once” Bela, and although the character often feels like an amalgamation of Twitter one-liners and outdated women’s magazine advice, the actress gives her spunky energy. More underserved are Scott as Whitney and Rapp as Leighton, the former because she’s the character most defined by her bad romantic choice and so little developed as her own person, and the latter because her finding-herself journey is simultaneously telegraphed and antiquated. Whether the first season’s final four episodes offer them better material remains to be seen.

Still, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is benefited by supporting work from steadfast comedy presences like Rob Huebel and Nicole Sullivan, scene-stealers like Christopher Meyer and Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, and dreamy crush subjects Midori Francis and Gavin Leatherwood, of whom an admirer says, “You have a face to write songs about. Thank you.” The series’ imagining of the sexism, racism, and classism that can fester at a theoretically liberal campus could sprawl into longer arcs if Kaling and Noble were willing to break out of its different-party-every-episode routine and let it. And in the back half of this season, there certainly is room to get more risqué and to dig into what really defines, interests, and arouses these characters. “I’m thriving!” one of them yells, but “The Sex Lives of College Girls” has some catching up to do to get there. [C+]

“The Sex Lives of College Girls” premieres on HBO Max on November 18.