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‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’: 4 freshmen get oriented toward adulthood in sweet HBO Max series

Likable actors work beautifully together as the roommates learning the ways of love and money.

Reneé Rapp (from left), Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur star in “The Sex Lives of College Girls.”
HBO Max

In the breezy and funny and surprisingly sweet HBO Max comedy-drama “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” we’re asked to believe four freshman students who were complete strangers get deeply entangled with each other’s lives in a matter of weeks simply because they’ve been assigned to room together.

This would be a stretch except for the fact that in real life, on college campuses across the country, thousands upon thousands of freshman students from different backgrounds who were complete strangers get deeply entangled with each other’s lives in a matter of weeks simply because they were assigned to room together.

Thanks to the spot-on observational skills of the prolific and wonderfully talented co-creators Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble and an enormously likable cast of gifted young actors (along with some reliable veterans in the parental roles), “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is so much more than that salacious title. Yes, there’s plenty of sex — sometimes hot, sometimes awkward, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes beautifully romantic — but this is really about the LIVES of college girls, and even with the staccato beat of well-timed one-liners and a few storylines that have been done to death, there’s something fresh and original and just plain entertaining about each of the six (out of 10) episodes I’ve seen.

“The Sex Lives of College Girls” is set in the fictional Essex College, a top-tier, private school in Vermont, and centers on the stories of four freshman college roommates:

  • Bela (Amrit Kaur), an Indian-American whose parents expect her to study molecular biology when she dreams of becoming a comedy writer-performer (she has a poster of Seth Meyers on the dorm wall) — and of making up for lost time when it comes to hookups.
  • Whitney (Alyah Chanelle), a young Black woman who is a soccer standout and the daughter of a U.S. senator. Against her better judgment, Whitney is having an affair with her married coach. (The quicker we’re finished with this particular subplot, the better. You can do SO much better, Whitney!)
  • Leighton (Reneé Rapp), who comes from a white, upper-crust background and is at first blush mean and selfish but is harboring a bundle of insecurities and self-doubts, and a secret of her own: She’s gay, and she has her reasons for not coming out, even in 2021.
  • Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), a white woman who comes from a small town in Arizona, depends on financial aid and a part-time job to pay for her schooling, and is worried she’ll never fit in.

Archetypes, to be sure, but not stereotypes. With each episode, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” provides new insights and sometimes surprising revelations about the core four, while we get valuable supporting contributions from Sherri Shepherd as Whitney’s senator mom, who seems more excited about an on-air invite from Jake Tapper than her daughter’s collegiate activities; Rob Huebel as Leighton’s WASPy Republican father; Gavin Leatherwood as Leighton’s gorgeous, upperclassman brother, who takes a shine to the inexperienced and shy Kimberly; Lauren Spencer, playing a wisecracking lifestyle influencer in a wheelchair, and Ilia Isorelys Paulino and Christopher Meyer as Kimberly’s co-workers at a coffee shop.

Mostly, though, this is a terrific vehicle for Kaur, Chanelle, Rapp and Chalamet to demonstrate their comedic and dramatic talents. They work beautifully together and have a natural rhythm, even when the dialogue seems almost too perfectly written. In a cast of standouts, Kaur is the superstar. I’d watch a series about Bela’s adventures not only through college but into the rest of her life. She’s that flawed, that funny, that clever, that captivating.