Can’t Miss Episode of the Week: ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ Is a Worthy Series About the College Experience
Welcome to our weekly column Can’t Miss Episode of the Week! Every Saturday we’ll be spotlighting a different episode of television from that week that we thought was exceptional and a must-see. Check back to see if your favorite show got the nod — or to learn about a new one! Spoilers ahead.
For all of the endless shows on television about high school, there’s hardly any about college. One of the few shows actually about the college experience was Greek (2007-11) on what was then ABC Family. Greek proved that a series like this could be done well, and that there is an audience appetite for this type of story: newly minted adults exploring their sexuality for the first time, campus parties, roommate troubles, the stress of academic life, and, in Greek’s case, the soapy drama of sororities and fraternities. When you think about it, it’s actually crazy that we don’t have more shows like it. The few follow-ups to Greek have included Grown-ish (on Freeform, ABC Family’s successor) and Netflix’s Dear White People. But now, Greek has a worthy successor in HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, which dropped its Season 1 finale on December 9th, and has already received a renewal for Season 2.
The off-beat comedy follows four roommates (played by Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur, Reneé Rapp and Alyah Chanelle Scott) from different walks of life as they begin their freshman year at the fictional, prestigious Essex College in New England. Although they are mostly newbies in the cast, the star power behind this series is Mindy Kaling, executive producing alongside Justin Noble. I have to admit, I have not been a fan of Kaling’s work in the past (Four Weddings and a Funeral was horrendous, and Never Have I Ever has always been too cringe for my tastes), but despite a rocky pilot, this series has gotten better with every episode. It has the same sort of campy, over-the-top vibe as the new Gossip Girl (also an HBO Max original), except where Gossip Girl features characters trying to tear each other down, College Girls is about friends learning to build each other up. I instinctively like the latter better–never underestimate the power of giving fans characters they can root for. And in this episode, the girls need all the support they can get.
We’ve been dealing with Whitney’s (Scott) affair with her coach (James Morosini) all season, but the conflict gets an added deeper dimension when Whitney’s mom, Senator Chase (Sherri Shepherd), suddenly comes to campus this episode. Having seen the article in the school newspaper about the affair, Chase wants to know if Whitney is the student mentioned. When we first met Whitney’s senator mom in Episode 1, she seemed cold, and constantly too busy to give her daughter any real attention. Well, we misjudged her. As Whitney’s new love interest Canaan (Christopher Meyer) points out, “She left her book tour to make sure you were okay. She obviously cares about you a lot.” After an amusing sub-plot where Whitney’s soccer friend Willow (Renika Williams, in one of the best minor supporting roles, who definitely deserves more screen time next season) pretends that she’s the one who had the affair, Whitney tells her mom the truth. Her mom surprises Whitney by not being mad at her, but, in a completely heartwarming conversation, being disappointed in herself for not creating a relationship where her daughter could feel comfortable telling her things.
Rapp, as rich kid/mean girl Leighton has been consistently casting out killer one-liners, while simultaneously reeling in viewers with a genuinely emotional character arc. The best storyline of the episode also concerns a confession. Leighton seems shallow, but on the inside she’s been struggling with finding the courage to come out as gay, and it’s already tanked her relationship with secret girlfriend Alicia (the incredibly cool Midori Francis, from Dash & Lily). Heartbroken and having to finally confront her situation, she comes out to Kimberly (Chalamet). It’s a quiet, beautiful moment, and bonding for these two characters. Always-says-the-wrong-thing Kimberly finally says the right thing: “The only way you can be happy is if you’re yourself.”
Hardly an episode goes by without some crazy college campus antics, and that is no less true in this one as the girls head to an anything-but-clothes party (for example, Bela wears a dress made of caution tape). It’s the perfect backdrop for Kimberly to enact her hail Mary plan to steal tests from the fraternity Theta and turn them over to the administration to save herself from getting kicked out for cheating. It can be hard to sympathize with Kimberly–it doesn’t take a genius to know that you shouldn’t have sex in your professor’s office, but she’s as endearing as she is frustrating. Her plan works, they don’t kick her out of school, but the cliffhanger of the episode is that they’ve revoked her scholarship. It’s a bittersweet finish for Kimberly, but a happy ending for Bela (Kaur), who finds out at the party that after she quit the misogynistic comedy magazine the Catullan, the other women quit too, and want to start a new publication with her.
The series takes a lot of big swings, and not all of them work out (I was not a fan of Bela giving all those handjobs to get into the Catullan in Episode 1), but as it finds its groove, I’m increasingly grateful for this weird, funny, comforting show. We’ll see you all next semester.
Other observations that we thought made this episode stand out:
- In a sweet scene, Kimberly admits to her dad over video chat that she cheated, but instead of being angry with her, he accepts the news and reminds her that it’s okay to not be perfect all the time.
- Nico (a steamy Gavin Leatherwood, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) shows he does have a shred of humanity after all when, feeling guilty, he helps Kimberly steal the tests.
- Another parallel to Greek: Leighton’s arc is reminiscent of when the closeted Calvin (Paul James) came out to Rusty (Jacob Zachar) in an early Season 1 episode, cementing the two as best friends for the rest of the series.