HBO has a storied history with female quartets, from “Sex and the City” to “Girls.” Yet “The Sex Lives of College Girls” carves out its own niche with a distinct voice and plenty of very funny material, capturing four young women from diverse backgrounds thrown together as roommates while coming of age as first-year college students.
Co-created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, the HBO Max show actually has a lot to say, in part by uniting women whose differences in terms of race, class and geography are somewhat eclipsed by sharing the process of discovering themselves and carving out identities apart from their parents.
“Mom, I’m not bringing my teddy bear to college with me,” one complains during the moving-in stage at New England’s Essex College, nicely capturing the middle ground between independence and childhood that this period uniquely represents.
Cue the slow-motion shots of shirtless guys jogging, the skepticism about a boyfriend who wants to wait until marriage (“Boys are born ready, so something’s up”) and issues about grappling with sexual identity.
The producers have helped the process by assembling a very good cast, including Pauline Chalamet — Timothee’s sister — as Kimberley, a wide-eyed arrival from Arizona who forever seems to be saying the wrong thing, and who lacks the connections and financial resources of her roommates. The remaining trio, Bela (Amrit Kaur), Leighton (Reneé Rapp), and (Whitney) Alyah Chanelle Scott, are equally good, with Kaur garnering the biggest laughs as a kid eager to cut loose out now that she’s escaped her parents’ supervision.
While this is hardly new terrain, “Sex Lives” manages to be occasionally sweet in addition to funny, such as when a couple of them attend a “naked party” and get chided for looking down at others’, um, nakedness.
“So we’re not supposed to look? What is this, a naked party under Taliban rule?” Bela complains.
Later, Whitney — the daughter of a senator — grudgingly attends a fraternity party along with the wealthy Leighton, telling the sea of blond girls that she meets, “I look forward to seeing you all on ‘Selling Sunset’ one day.”
Amid the jokes and uncomfortable situations (including a positively cringeworthy dinner during parents’ weekend in a later episode), there’s an almost palpable sense of the desperate desire to fit in, as well as how significant the college years are in defining people as they mature.
In that sense, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is a rather simplistic, marketing-friendly title for a show that’s refreshingly about a lot more than that.
As it happens, the series will conclude the same day that HBO’s “Sex and the City” revival hits the streaming service, a nod to the genre’s past. If “Sex Lives” is in some respects a spiritual heir, it makes a strong case that meeting the next generation has more creative promise than revisiting an earlier one.
“The Sex Lives of College Girls” premieres Nov. 18 on HBO Max. CNN and HBO Max are both part of WarnerMedia.
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