In the long, long ago, there was a movie, The Paper Chase (1973) and a TV series based on it. The show was about the lives and experiences of law students at an unidentified university. The series ran on CBS in the 1978-79 season and was cancelled. In 1983, cable outlet Showtime revised it and it lasted a few seasons.
Here’s the thing – before cable and streaming, the university experience was almost a no-go area for U.S. TV. The high-school experience was considered universal but that did not apply to the college and university arena. Such series and storylines might alienate a mass audience.
The Sex Lives of College Girls (streams on Crave in Canada, made for HBO Max) is absolutely an emanation of this peak-TV period. Anything goes. Co-created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), it’s about four young women from extremely different backgrounds who are thrown together as roommates at the very Ivy League-ish Essex College in Vermont. The “sex lives” part? Yeah, that matters, but not exactly as you’d expect.
For a while there I was worried about The Sex Lives of College Girls. Specifically, that there was no sign of info about it and no advance links to screeners were showing up in my inbox. Usually, Crave and HBO are very efficient and on-time. Then the penny dropped. The press notes and screeners had been quarantined in the SPAM part of the inbox. With a title like that, it was going to be locked away by an algorithm on the assumption I was being sent porn.
Not so. The series is direct and candid about how sex-positive these women are. In a way – typical of Mindy Kaling’s work – it upends some clichés. Instead of young men ogling cheerleaders, these women sometimes command a guy to lift his shirt and show off his torso. It’s a teensy bit shocking, but it’s the humour of it that matters.
Mostly the series is character-driven and takes a while to get below the surface. The main four figures are Bela (Amrit Kaur) who outright sees college as the place to explore sex because she suddenly feels attractive and was raised by conservative parents; Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) comes from a small town and her knowledge of life beyond there is limited to TV viewing; Leighton (Renée Rapp) is rich, arrogant and a classic “mean girl” but by the end of the first episode, we know her secret, and it is sexual; and finally Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is a star soccer player who happens to be the daughter of a high-profile Senator.
It’s Bela who draws a lot of the viewer’s attention. A South Asian character, her blatant interest in sex, and her view that it’s transactional, make for very bittersweet comedy. She wants to be a writer and will do pretty much anything – anything! – to be part of the school paper, in the first step to being a successful TV writer. Kimberly is the butt of jokes at first, as her introduction to school life and work (she needs a part-time job) reveals her to be the embodiment of American small-town ignorance of other cultures and just other people. As for Leighton, you’re watching a classic, entitled rich girl being slowly revealed as someone in serious emotional difficulty.
There’s energy and charm here, especially after the introduction of the characters is complete. Jokes tumble out constantly and the energy is in the desire to shift your perspective from traditional movies – mostly movies, not TV – and see university is a place where only young men grow up. Yes, some parents watching the series (10 episodes, two streaming now and more coming weekly) will be taken aback by the frank sexual talk and even more frank sexual needs and aspirations of these four figures.
The Sex Lives of College Girls is more about emotional feelings, fun and friendship, than it is about sex. The characters are fully drawn, and their antics offer rewarding entertainment. Don’t block it off, as the automated SPAM thing did to my info and screeners. It glitters with smart dialogue and it’s great to see the university experience explored from its particular and rare perspective.
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