By Sarah Osman
Let’s hope The Sex Lives of College Girls is given a second season because, much like Sex Education, it is a reminder of the value of the real at a time Big Tech and others are trying to pull us into living and loving in the virtual.
Over the years, we have been treated to numerous streaming high school shows. Some of them have been reasonably realistic, such as Sex Education, while others venture far into the absurd, like Riverdale (to quote my own students: when do those teens have time to do their homework?!) Strangely, though we have had multiple coming-0f-age series set in high school, we haven’t had that many that take place during the college years.
Enter HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. Created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, the series follows four roommates as they begin their freshman year at Essex, a leafy New England liberal arts college that may or may not be based on Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth. Each girl brings to the university their own insecurities and aspirations: Leighton (Renee Rapp, who most recently played Regina George in Broadway’s Mean Girls) is a snob struggling to come out of the closet; Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet, sister to the other Chalamet) is a valedictorian from a tiny Arizona town and is struggling to deal with a world outside of her small world for the first time ever; Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is a talented soccer player whose senator mom shines more light on her than she would like; and finally there’s Bela (Amrit Kaur), who is an aspiring “sex positive” comedian. The pairings initially seem mismatched, but the contrasts become the basis for their friendships. All four girls get on well, and it’s a welcome change (at least in the HBO/Netflix dimension) to see such easy going female friendships. The crux of the series focuses on how relationships mature. And that is refreshing given the overdone rom-com trope, where they all hate each other at first and then learn to love.
Yes, “sex” is in the title, but that isn’t the show’s sole focus. The girls do have intercourse, but this is a show that explores the nuances around sex and sexuality, as well as the complications of attending university as a young woman in America today. Bela is trying to break into the comedy scene, which remains as misogynistic as ever. That makes it oh so satisfying whenever she justly rebels against those machismo ideals. One of the best narrative arcs deals with class — Kimberly didn’t come from a world of privilege and is grappling with understanding what is appropriate and what’s not. Whitney crumbles under the unrelenting pressure to succeed exerted by her mom. She goes so far as to have an affair with an older man, who, sadly for Whitney, doesn’t care about her. The most compelling arc may be Leighton’s, whose romps on dating apps eventually lead her to finding what could be real love — if only she will be able to love herself. Fantasy is kept at arm’s length. The Sex Lives of College Girls is compelling because it revolves around complex characters — who are treated tenderly by the writers — facing down-to-earth problems.
If it does nothing else, the show serves as a valuable reminder that the best streaming shows need not be about sex, drugs, or solving murders (granted, they can be great fun), but can be rooted in experiences that many of us deal with in the day-to-day world. The comedy in Sex Lives is generated by the girls’ trials and tribulations — not cheeky one-liners. Admit it, how many of us have gotten drunk and attempted to flirt with our crush? Or gotten angry and thrown something we shouldn’t have? How many of us have felt intimidated in an unfamiliar setting? These prosaic conundrums are at the center of the show, and they prove that coming of age doesn’t always have to be traumatic. It can take the form of a series of small steps that gently teach lessons that lead to confidence and self-control, and that is exactly the kind of journey the ladies of Essex University are taking. Let’s hope The Sex Lives of College Girls is given a second season because, much like Sex Education, it is a reminder of the value of the real at a time Big Tech and others are trying to pull us into living and loving in the virtual.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman