“The Sex Lives Of College Girls” Gets Silly Again

Mindy Kaling’s show runs smoothest when it doesn’t try to teach you things.

The second season of The Sex Lives of College Girls is, in many ways, a relief.

For starters, the girls — soccer star Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), sweet dork Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), aspiring comedian Bela (Amrit Kaur), and legacy admit Leighton (Reneé Rapp) — are already friends, which means the show doesn’t have to work so hard to convince us that four very different people with zero campus overlap would become a clique. They wouldn’t! But it’s fine. They’re funny together, so I’m happy to suspend my disbelief.

And, thankfully, none of the girls has a heavy, politicized storyline for the show to mishandle. In Season 1, Whitney has an affair with a predatory, married soccer coach, Dalton (James Morosini). To make up for hiding her from his wife, he takes Whitney on romantic pickup truck dates (an oxymoron) and leaves her bouquets of Kit Kats after they fight. He seems bumbling and innocuous, until it turns out he has a history of grooming student-athletes.

But Season 1 spends far less time on this horrifying revelation than on the fact that Nico (Gavin Leatherwood), Kimberly’s trimester-long fling, had a secret girlfriend the whole time. The abuse scandal plays second fiddle to a frat bro’s dishonesty. Then, in a single line with which the show attempts to retrieve its own wayward politics, Whitney’s standoffish teammate Jena (Maya Rose) reassures her, “Dalton is clearly the problem here. He’s older, and he was your coach.” Very true, but then why is this the only scene where the show takes said problem seriously?

Plenty of comedies about adolescent sexuality stumble over their own didacticism. It’s a tricky line to navigate; showrunners want to depict the messiness of sex, but they feel responsible for educating their younger viewers. In its third season, Big Mouth attracted controversy for a scene in which a new pansexual student, Ali (Ali Wong), explained her sexual orientation by saying she was into "tacos and burritos … a taco that was born a burrito, or a burrito that is transitioning into a taco.” It was a clumsy analogy that reproduced the gender binary, but it was also an awkward moment in the series, stalling the plot unnecessarily. In Season 3 of Sex Education, the show used its first nonbinary character, Cal (Dua Saleh), as a mouthpiece for an explanation of the term “enby.” It probably was intended to invite nonbinary viewers in, but forcing Cal to explain their existence felt alienating, not welcoming. After all, the people who needed to learn the definition of “enby” were straight adults, not queer kids.

So it’s just nice that Season 2 of The Sex Lives of College Girls lets itself be vapid. And it works: The writing is more confident, the chemistry more natural. Instead of hot-potatoing serious subject matter it doesn’t know what to do with, the show revels in its main characters’ petty dramas, a wavelength on which it is much more comfortable.

It’s just nice that Season 2 of The Sex Lives of College Girls lets itself be vapid.

As the season begins, Whitney’s main dilemma is finding a hobby outside of soccer, and the anti-athlete discrimination she encounters when she signs up for biochem. Blissfully shallow stuff. Kimberly, who recently lost her scholarship, tries to make up the money by selling her eggs. Undergoing ovarian surgery to avoid a difficult conversation with your parents is an objectively terrible idea, but sure! Newly out Leighton is having a lot of casual sex with entangled members of the queer community, which leads to this great, zeitgeisty line from a jilted ex: “I would not have bought us Phoebe Bridgers tickets if I knew you were seeing other people!” As for Bela, she’s thriving. She’s working on the Foxy, her all-women comedy magazine; having juicily competitive sex with nerdy, deadpan Eric (Mekki Leeper), of rival comedy magazine the Catullan; and also attracting the attention of a (plotwise, short-lived) short king. Women really can have it all!

There are, as ever, major oversights in the show’s smug pseudofeminism. Why is Leighton, famed lesbian, who spent last season recoiling from the interest of a six-packed frat bro, checking out neighbor Jackson’s (Mitchell Slaggert) muscles with the other girls? It’s because the show secretly thinks girlhood and female friendship depend on ogling men, together. It’s the same reason so many of Lila’s (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) and Jocelyn’s (Lauren Spencer) punchlines are about lusting after dudes. The series doesn’t think its audience will otherwise be able to relate to a Latina student enrolled in work-study, or a Black student who uses a wheelchair, which says a lot about who this show thinks its audience is. But, according to the series’ blinkered version of sex positivity, women of all races and backgrounds can unite under the banner of being vocally horny for men. Even the token gay girl can go to the Magic Mike strip show, get a lap dance from an oily guy, and say, “Weirdly, I’m into this!” Leighton, honey, blink twice if you need help.

There’s plenty else to take issue with. Why does Whitney have to fall for Andrew, the condescending prick from her biochem lab, who does nothing but neg her? When did Leighton’s mom, who has the personality of a pearl necklace come to life, get woke? Why does Bela keep wearing such awful outfits? It’s honestly a plot hole that Miu Miu skirt–wearing, Prada-shaming, too-glam-for-her-own-good Leighton doesn’t rip those ugly ties right off of her roommate’s neck.

But the show’s strength has never been its internal logic. Creator Mindy Kaling favors soap-operatic pivots and flourishes; 2020’s Never Have I Ever, about the sex lives of high school girls, unfurls in a string of convenient choices. After the main character, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), spends an episode working up the courage to ask her impossibly hot crush, Paxton (Darren Barnet), to have sex with her, he agrees without missing a beat. It makes the whole lead-up fall a bit flat, but hey! Onto the next thing. Watching Kaling’s work is more fun if you give yourself up to the wild ride.

And the show does excel at zingy one-liners that keep the story moving. When Canaan (Christopher Meyer), Whitney’s ex, catches her having sex with her lab partner in the library, he jumps, grabs a book off the shelf, opens it, and says, “I came to get a book about, uh– Ronald Reagan! So, I’m good.” This moment rules. Nothing more needs to be said. When Leighton returns to the Women’s Center she resented last season, and leftist archetype Ginger (Amanda Ripley) declares, “Succulents are inherently feminist,” it ceases to matter that this plotline came out of nowhere. That one piece of dialogue is funny enough to plunge us merrily back into the Women’s Center world.

You can’t be everything to everyone. In its first season, The Sex Lives of College Girls tried to be weighty and witty, showily smart and raucously sexy. All that ever did was create a tonal clash so maddening that every scene was haunted by what it didn’t do well enough. In Season 2, the show’s main failures still come from trying to be more substantial than it is. The bland multiculturalism of its ensemble, which studiously checks off demographic boxes to ensure Diversity™, means the series’ mincing engagement with race goes only as far as Whitney experiencing a microaggression and then shutting down her TA’s (literal) white tears.

But when the show knows its limits and works within them, it all runs smoothly. It’s better this way: as a silly, unpredictable romp that draws its strength from chaotic asides (Kimberly: “I deleted the calculator app on my phone and I can’t get it back”), scene-stealing minor characters (Canaan: “Chopin was the Pitbull of his day”), and such a dense thicket of jokes that there’s no point looking back for too long. ●

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