Mindy Kaling’s ‘Sex Lives of College Girls’ and thriller ‘Yellowjackets’ are very different shows, but both sharp on female friendship

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(L-r) Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur in “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” MUST CREDIT: Jessica Brooks/HBO Max

Before the plane crash that stranded them in the middle of nowhere, many of the girls on board were exactly the kinds of teens the New Jersey suburbs were supposed to produce. Star athletes. Ivy League-bound. Tough and determined, yet open to love and sexual exploration. By the time the survivors were found and rescued 19 months later, they were rumored to be something else: cannibals.

The genre of the teen soap gets a pulpy makeover – and channels adult ennui – in Showtime’s new supernatural thriller “Yellowjackets.” It’s the kind of show that borrows from so many others that it feels mostly original again, though its most direct influence is “Lost.” Half the action takes place in 1996, the year the plane goes down and the girls – a soccer team en route to nationals – become bombarded by mysterious phenomena. The other half of the series is set in the present day, as the 40-something versions of the survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynsky, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress) are forced to remember their time cut off from civilization a quarter-century later.

Needless to say, hardly any of the girls fulfill their promise after such cataclysmic trauma. We meet the grown-up Nat (Lewis, played by Sophie Thatcher as an adolescent) on her last day of rehab in California. The rest have stayed close to home. Housewife Shauna (Lynsky, played in her younger scenes by Sophie Nélisse) squabbles day and night with her boring husband and callous teenage daughter, who resents having grown up in the shadow of the media circus around the crash. Living alone – yet no happier for it – is Misty (Ricci, with Sammi Hanratty as her juvenile counterpart), who likely works at a nursing home for the easy access to pills and ready power over the helpless.

The only survivor who seems to have pulled her life together is Taissa (Cypress, played as a teen by Jasmin Savoy Brown), a state-senate candidate who can’t give voters what they want most: her life story. Taissa is more than willing to trot out her wife (Rukiya Bernard) and their young son Sammy (Aiden Stoxx) for public consumption, though the C-word – which the child thankfully mishears as “cannonball” – keeps popping up on the campaign trail. But Taissa can’t juggle caring for her scared sons’ well-being with pretending she’s not regularly seeing apparitions portending imminent death.

Lewis, Lynsky and Ricci embody characters that hew close to their off-kilter ’90s screen personae. (Lynsky’s “Heavenly Creatures” feels like a touchstone for the series, as does Ricci’s “Now and Then.”) The production can be overly obvious with its Clinton-era props (beepers, a stack of Sassy magazine) and needle-drops (“Shoop” and Liz Phair), but this is also the rare show that’s paying tribute to the decade, rather than simply summoning nostalgia like a misbegotten spell.

“Yellowjackets” is a show interested in female darkness, along with the relief and boredom that follow once the obligation (or opportunity) for exceptional strength or strategy passes. Yes, it’s a show calculated for crossover appeal, for those who used “Daria” and “The Craft” to get through high school, as well as the TikTok set discovering chokers and bucket hats – back in vogue – for the first time. But it also follows the recent (if Wes Craven-inspired) trend of asking who the final girls (who outlive their respective horror tales) have grown up to be, while building on the fascination with the underside of the girly id – the churning anger and fluctuating hormones and unblinking grasps for control – that last crested a couple of decades ago.

Visually shepherded by pilot director Karyn Kusama (“Jennifer’s Body”), “Yellowjackets” isn’t without its growing pains, especially in its pacing. Menacing postcards sent to the middle-aged survivors take too long to bring together all the women, who seem to have avoided one another since their return. It’s particularly disappointing to see the underutilization of Lewis, an often mesmerizing performer who helped pave the way for the more layered female roles we have today, but by and large hasn’t gotten to enjoy the fruits of her contributions.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the gorier coming-of-age story lines would engross more. Notably, Shauna’s best friend and the team leader, Jackie (Ella Purnell), has no older analogue, and she’s not the only one. At least in the first six episodes screened for review (out of 10), there’s an auspicious panoply of threats teeming in the woods around the crash survivors: bouts of dirt-eating, animals rotting from the inside out, perhaps demon possession. But the show is at its most compelling when the girls are forced to confront the unknowable inside them: the calm that settles in right before the inevitable has to be done, the shock of tenderness and the temptation of vulnerability amid destruction and, most frighteningly, a fetus. It’s no wonder the aging survivors have no desire to return to such a place – and why they can’t resist going back.

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The warring impulses toward female friendship and female aggression also drive HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a winsome comedy from creators Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble. It, too, centers on a quartet of women: first-year suitemates at fictional Essex College, a prestigious New England university that strongly recalls Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth, where the writer-actor got her comedy start.

There’s more than a sprinkling of autobiographical detail in Bela (newcomer Amrit Kaur), an Indian American nerd ready to reinvent herself as a sex-positive boy magnet and a TV writer in training. (Bela is a spiritual twin to Devi of “Never Have I Ever”; they share a charmingly brash self-confidence and a shameless love of abs. I have to guess that Kaling is writing what she knows.) Who needs Samantha Jones in the upcoming “Sex and the City” sequel series when you’ve got this bubbly horndog always primed for another bunk-bed misadventure?

The cheekily titled series works as well as it does because of its central observation: College, despite all its loudly proclaimed opportunities for self-cultivation, often just feels like high school, with higher stakes and far fewer safety nets. Hard-working Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet, who bears a striking resemblance to her brother Timothée), dwells on her family’s modest economic background for perhaps the first time in her life, especially when assigned to board with private-school snob Leighton (Reneé Rapp) and soccer jock Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), whose mother just happens to be a senator (guest star Sherri Shepherd).

Rapp, who played Regina George on the Broadway version of “Mean Girls,” is the standout in the first six episodes (of 10), given the most cutting one-liners as well as the most poignant character development. Leighton harbors a secret that, to her surprise, becomes much harder to keep on campus than at home, especially once she brushes up against the Greek spheres occupied by her older brother (Gavin Leatherwood). But this is also the kind of show where pretty much every cast member feels like a find, and where the natural chemistry among the central foursome adds to the series’ easygoing appeal.

At Essex, as with so many real-life colleges, there exist a thousand and one microcosms, and part of the fun is getting to explore these worlds and watch them collide. Special attention is paid to the campus humor magazine where Bela hopes to make the cut; it’s a pipeline to future TV jobs, after all, but also enough of a museum that there’s a limited number of “female spots.” Whitney is revealed to be in a relationship that might be over her head, while Kimberly struggles to navigate the hidden codes of social-media flirting – what does a deleted compliment on Instagram from your crush mean, if anything?

With a much smoother start than many of Kaling’s previous shows, “Sex Lives” is, of course, much less about naked-party protocols (though it’s also about that) than those first tentative steps of giddy transgression. Nothing defines youth more aptly, except maybe thinking you can’t possibly grow up to be in your 40s one day – and that you’ll be grateful you did.

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