Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy.
What’s Good? The Sex Lives of College Girls on HBO Max, co-created, co-written and produced by Mindy Kaling, about four freshman roommates at Essex College in Vermont who are navigating the freedom that comes with post-secondary school, and the responsibility. I don’t know how she does it, but every single one of Kaling’s shows has a chokehold on me. No one flips rom-com tropes on their head or gives us messy, complex, sometimes-infuriating-but-always-endearing leading ladies of color quite like Kaling. But of all of her previous offerings (The Mindy Project, Four Weddings And A Funeral, Never Have I Ever), The Sex Lives of College Girls may just be my favorite — mainly because of its Black girl characters. That’s high praise.
Who It’s Good For: If you have an affinity for Kaling’s specific rom-com TV cadence — raunchy jokes (delivered by women, what a concept!), swoon-worthy albeit awkward flirting, smart and subversive commentary that’s never preachy — this show is for you. If you like a good ensemble cast, The Sex Lives of College Girls stars four women who have better chemistry with each other than most leads of romantic movies of the past decade. There’s Pauline Chalamet (yes, Timotheé’s sister) as Kimberly, the doe-eyed small-town girl from Arizona, and Reneé Rapp as Leighton, a rich, uptight legacy student who, like many college kids, is still reckoning with her sexuality. Amrit Kaur is relatable and chaotic as Bela, an aspiring comedy writer who is as horny as she is hysterical. And finally, Alyah Chanelle Scott rounds out the cast as Whitney, the overachieving soccer star and daughter of a senator who is also having an affair with her coach.
The whole cast is stellar — truly one of the best groups of young of actors in the game — but it’s Whitney and the other Black characters of The Sex Lives of College Girls that have set this show apart for me. Lauren “Lolo” Spencer plays Jocelyn, a quick-witted fellow student who is brutally honest, stylish, and sex-positive. She also just happens to be disabled. Her identity isn’t her whole plot. It’s one of the many facets of this character who steals every scene she’s in. Seriously, Spencer is a STAR. Renika Williams is Willow, Whitney’s best friend and soccer teammate, who just happens to be queer. Willow, Whitney and Jocelyn are all very different Black girls, and each one (even though Willow and Jocelyn could use some more screen time) brings so much richness to a show that’s ultimately about young people figuring their shit out. Usually, on shows without predominantly Black casts, the Black characters are just outlines of human beings, never fully colored in with nuance, depth or flaws. Here, we get the full picture, written in permanent ink. There’s no erasing their existence or downplaying their integral roles in making this show one of the best of the year.
How Good Is It? Anyone who has lived through your own college years knows how rife for drama, comedy and MESS leaving the nest to “learn” can be. It’s a setting that has given us so many classic series (Felicity, Dear White People, Greek, Veronica Mars) and since these characters aren’t in high school any more, they can do grown things (like drink and have sex) without parental repercussions. Instead, the consequences for our characters’ chaos come from their peers, or worse, themselves. And that’s the beauty of The Sex Lives of College Girls, especially when it comes to Whitney. She’s sleeping with her coach (a way older man who, considering the power imbalance, is a sleazebag grossly misusing his position), and it’s refreshing to see a young Black woman doing something so wildly inappropriate on screen without it being boiled down to a stereotype or a direct consequence of her Blackness. Whitney is messing up, hard, but she’s also young and being taken advantage of. In conversation with The New York Times, Scott reflected on the fact that Black women have been so hypersexualized and scandalized on screen that the quieter, more mundane, real moments of figuring out our sexuality aren’t often shown. Playing Whitney gave her a chance to show something more authentic. “I grew up not seeing Black women get to have awkward moments, normal sexual moments,” she said. “Our show is cool in the sense that I get to be a Black girl who has awkward, messy sexual moments.”
One of those “messy sexual moments” comes when Whitney is hooking up with Canaan (Christopher Meyer) and her mom, Senator Evette Chase (Sherri Shepherd), almost walks in on them. They scramble to put their clothes on and Canaan tries to pretend he’s there on official IT business — except his shirt is on backwards. We’ve seen this scenario before (getting caught red-handed is an easy laugh) but for some reason, in these three actors’ hands, the moment feels fresh and is undeniably funny. Plus, if you weren’t Team Whitney and Canaan before this scene, it probably won you over.
Whitney’s urge to please her mom with high standards paired with Evette’s warm and caring reaction when she finds out all the things her daughter hid from her in fear of her disapproval hits all the right emotional cues. We know what is at stake for the Black daughter of a Black senator at a predominantly white institution, but we also know that Black girls should be allowed to make mistakes too. For the first time in all of the shows she’s given us, Mindy Kaling (and co.) delivered a satisfying Black storyline that isn’t stereotypical or short-lived. Plus, Canaan is the sole non-white male love interest on the show, and we know how Kaling loves to overlook crushes of color (with a few exceptions, see: Paxton Hall-Yoshida and Kash Khan), so the fact that Whitney got a really nice emotional arc and a Black love story is exciting (and about time). Next season, I’m hoping Willow and Jocelyn are next.
In its 10-episode first season, The Sex Lives of College Girls tackles consent, sexual assault, coming out and living up to expectations all with the heaviness these topics deserve mixed with humor and lightness that never takes away from the point. It’s a credit to the sharp writing, entertaining backdrop, and an enigmatic cast who elevate the material they’re given, especially the Black girl characters.
What Else Is Good?
• Corny Black Christmas movies that make us smile, swoon and remember what the true reason for the season is: to become one with your couch, turn your brain off and watch two people fall in love!
• Speaking of watching people in love, Zendaya and Tom Holland during the press tour for Spider-Man: No Way Home are so adorable it’s almost too much.