Mindy Kaling ventures into new territory with The Sex Lives Of College Girls, her raunchiest project to date. The HBO Max series, which premieres November 18, captures an exciting coming-of-age story, as four young women explore their love lives. The show’s relatively grown-up college setting allows its protagonists to discover their sexual identities and talk freely about their desires and adventures.
Kaling, the creator and star of The Mindy Project, carries her signature comedic style—filled with witticisms and pop culture references—over to TSLOCG as she finds her footing in writing for a younger audience. The show puts a strong focus on building an authentic friendship among its leads: roommates Bela (Amrit Kaur), Leighton (Reneé Rapp), Kimberley (Pauline Chalamet), and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott).
The A.V. Club spoke to Kaling about crafting a college-based show that differs from her own experiences, her approach toward writing Indian American teens, and her shift from actor-writer to writer-creator.
The A.V. Club: What was the inspiration behind these four very distinct characters?
Mindy Kaling: We wanted four people who were very, very different on paper, and would never choose to live together. As you can probably tell from the projects I work on, I wanted four women with really big personalities, wants, and ambitions. It felt like throwing them together, seeing all their conflict, the places where they aligned, all of that would be conducive to comedy.
AVC: How did you construct the world around the four of them? Did you always know you wanted to tell their story in a contained college environment?
MK: What I love about the college experience is that there’s no other time in your life when you’re randomly assigned to live with people you did not choose. You’re away from home for the first time. There’s so much expectation and so many aspirations. People go to college and want to reinvent themselves. I went to Dartmouth, and I hadn’t seen this very specific, New England or East Coast college setting on TV yet. My co-creator, Justin Noble, went to Yale. We both loved our time in college. It felt like a great setting. It reminds me of Hogwarts in that there’s so much wish fulfillment and feelings of “I wish we could go back there.” We knew it was for HBO Max, so wanted the production value to be incredible. That was a big draw, too.
AVC: How much of your own experience did you include in the show? Was it also challenging to make sure it’s still authentic for today’s times, whether it’s with the societal issues, social media, pop culture references?
MK: I was sexually repressed as a kid, and continue to feel like I identify that way. Writing a show about, well, the sex lives of college girls was kind of titillating and exciting. I was not interested in writing about a repressed young Asian woman. I wanted to do a sex-positive show with women who, even though they are very different from each other, have an unabashed attitude toward sexuality and an excitement about their adventurous lives. In order to do that, I needed people who had various experiences in college. We hired a mostly female, super diverse staff who were more advanced than me and Justin, and could share their lessons with us.
I was also terrified about the show seeming like it was about my experience or it feeling dated. So the other thing we did was, we went in the first week of March 2020 to Dartmouth and Yale. We went to the type of places we cover on the show, like a women center, and talked to the girls there. We wanted to find out what their world was really like. It was vital to do that.
AVC: TSLOCG is definitely your boldest project so far. Why was it the right time for you to work on it now?
MK: Honestly, it scared me a little bit, but it excited me too. Like I said because I continue to feel repressed, it felt like it would be scandalous and juicy to work on something like this. It’s called The Sex Lives Of College Girls because they’re preoccupied with that part, but it’s also about fitting in. It’s about their romantic lives, familial lives. It was challenging and definitely out of my comfort zone to write about sex and sexy situations. That’s why it was a great time to do it.
AVC: You obviously have a knack for writing young Indian characters and their coming-of-age stories. What was your approach for crafting Bela’s arc?
MK: When I think of The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri, NHIE’s Devi, and now with Bela, I guess I’m realizing right now it’s hard for me to write these female Indian characters that are not in some ways off-putting to the world. Bela is fiercely determined to be a comedy writer and knows from a young age that’s what she wants to do. It’s like, I want the show and the other characters to admire that in her, but also see that abject ambition is not necessarily considered a feminine quality.
When she is put in this sexist environment at the college’s comedy newspaper, obviously I can relate to those situations. But I didn’t want her to be perfect either. I admire that the show tries to do nuances. You really want her to be perfect so that what she’s up against can be black and white, yet she’s not. That’s real to me. The characters have real problems and are imperfect heroines. But because they’re vulnerable and real, you root for them no matter what.
AVC: In the fourth episode of TSLOCG, Bela calls out a comedian she really admires for his micro-aggressions, and for his joke about her growing up and possibly selling a TV show about an ethnic, quirky woman balancing love and career. Why was it important for you to include that?
MK: You know, so much of writing TV shows is having characters say the things you wish you were brave enough to say. That part is an example of a time when she says the thing I wish I could’ve said so many different times in my career, and in my 20s. Bela doesn’t always say the right thing, but in that instance, I found it cathartic.
AVC: The natural assumption is that you identify with Bela the most, but what characteristics do you identify with in the other three leads?
MK: Yeah, this is like in The Mindy Project, when I quite identified with Danny Castellano. But I played Mindy Lahiri, and I am Mindy, so everyone assumes I’m like her. I do identify with Bela a lot, but there’s also something about Leighton’s judgmental nature that rings true to me, unfortunately. Kimberley’s feminism, her desire to be seen as woke and also be woke—that’s something I embarrassingly identify with as well. Whitney is too cool, the coolest of them all, I think. I love that character. I can relate to the sting of heartbreak she faces on the show.
AVC: Do you ever feel like you want to make an appearance on The Sex Lives Of College Girls, or even on Never Have I Ever?
MK: I would love to work with these actors. I’m so impressed by them. For TSLOCG, we had to do the show during COVID. We didn’t have the thing where I would have them all over for dinner, we talk about the characters. They’d never met me before they all just showed up to set and really delivered. I would love to work with them, and on NHIE. I’m jealous they all get to hang out with each other. But I also think it would be distracting and possibly narcissistic for me to show up on either of them. I made a shift from being a performer-writer to writer-performer. I consider myself a writer first here. I like their worlds and I like that I’m not in them.
AVC: Did you envision this transformation when you started out writing and performing on The Office or while you were doing The Mindy Project?
MK: I don’t know. When I think about cuisines that I like, I like everything. I’m that person who likes to have no food restrictions. I have that same approach to writing. I worked on The Office for eight years, which could not be more different from The Mindy Project in tone and material. And I loved doing both of them. But there’s other stuff, too. I love mysteries and murder stories. I could see myself working on a thriller next.
Sometimes I randomly remember, “Oh, I used to write so much for men.” I wrote a lot for Michael Scott, Jim Halpert, Dwight Schrute for such a long time. My shows are female-centric now, and I think it suits my voice, but I wouldn’t mind a change. I’ve shifted to writing for characters under the age of 20. I never thought I’d be interested in that. I love that about my career.