Movie/review

HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls is a Fun but Flawed Romp | TV/Streaming

The salacious-sounding series title—somewhat reminiscent of the ludicrous 2001 Rolling Stone article “The Highly Charged Erotic Life of the Wellesley Girl,” which remains notorious and universally known to students of that campus to this day—is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Much like “Sex and the City,” it’s not as much a story about sex as much as it is one about female friendship between four female friends who spend a lot of time talking about sex. Ironically enough, the “sex lives” of it all is not really the show’s strength, especially in comparison to other offerings out there like “Sex Education.” While the sex scenes are refreshingly unglamorous and more realistically awkward than standard TV fare, for all the talk of being newcomers to sex, particularly for characters just out from under the watchful eye of conservative parents, the young women all come across as masters of sex to a degree that is somewhat odd. Birth control is never discussed except to crack a few jokes, complications like STDs or UTIs certainly never make it into the conversation, and no one, not even the hopelessly naïve Kimberly—who loses her virginity with her high school boyfriend in the pilot—seems to have any questions about sex save how best to snag the desired partner.

Of the four, Whitney gets stuck with the most unfortunate clichés, specifically the overplayed student-teacher storyline (or more accurately, student-assistant soccer coach storyline) rendered here with no particular nuance thus far. “I don’t like boys, I like men,” she announces in a way that is decidedly concerning coming from a teenager fresh out of high school—and a statement the series has still yet to unpack or further address in any meaningful way, although one hopes they just might be saving it for the final episodes. Scott’s excellent performance makes Whitney’s arc more compelling than a storyline this tired has any right to be, but it’s unfortunate that she did not get something more exciting to work with. Whitney’s complicated relationship with her powerhouse senator mother and how it impacts her life and relationships with others feels like a great, but largely untapped source of drama and narrative interest. The few small subplots that are not directly connected to her relationship with her married coach are generally connected to the consequences of being in her mother’s shadow and are far more engaging than the tired student-teacher storyline that unfortunately dominates the vast majority of Whitney’s screen time.

Kimberly’s Cinderella-adjacent arc, complete with unglamorous campus café job and makeover moment to prepare for a fancy ball (there’s also another party she has to leave before midnight to submit an assignment, but I digress), is similarly an incredibly familiar one elevated by a strong performance. However, in comparison to Whitney, Kimberly’s clichés benefit from being less fundamentally aggravating.

Character-wise, Bela and Leighton have the more interesting journeys thus far. Bela, in her aggressive objectification of the opposite sex and quest to bag sexual partner(s) more chiseled than David, is performative, a front to hide her deeper truth, deeply sensitive and somewhat naïve, which peeks through in a handful of surprisingly poignant moments. The other most compelling emotional beats come from Leighton’s arc, which gets off to a precarious start as a suspiciously dated narrative about being closeted, but the more her motivations are explored, the more interesting her arc becomes.

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