Teen sex comedy’s in a class of its own
Sex Education is a great title for a thoughtfully frank and often graphic new Netflix dramedy about a randy group of teenagers at a British high school. But let’s be honest Sex Education would be a good title for a lot of what Netflix is serving these days, further sealing the streaming network’s intimate relationship with adolescents around the world.
There’s a reason they’re all glued to their phones and don’t wish to be disturbed. It has to do with privacy, deeply personal questions and an entire gamut of emotions waiting to be discovered — or binge-watched, as the case may be. Even with certain controls in place, one wonders if parents get a say in what their kids are streaming.
But I didn’t come here to play Church Lady. I’m here to review an adult TV show that seems primarily aimed at the youth market — and I’m rather taken with the show’s honest approach to the awkwardness and general inevitability of teen sex.
The eight-episode series is set in some bucolic, hilly suburb (filmed in Wales), in a high school that departs wildly from the usual, Hogwarts-style assumptions about the UK educational experience.
Much like Greg Berlanti’s 2018 movie Love, Simon seemed to meld together an idealised then with a socially progressive, tech-savvy now, Sex Education (created by British playwright Laurie Nunn) exists in a permanent, vividly coloured state of homage, as if seeming to ask: What if Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and the gang were so completely free to act on their most carnal desires that they wound up needing a sex therapist who was their own age?
Clearly envious of old sounds and feelings, this show makes Porky’s like a Victorian-era farce.
Asa Butterfield stars as 16-year-old Otis Thompson, your average niceboy nerd (and virgin) with a peculiar distaste for anything having to do with sex, thanks to the success his now-divorced parents found when they co-wrote a best-selling book on intimacy. Living with his extremely open-minded, you-can-tell-meanything mother, Jill (Gillian Anderson), Otis chooses retreat. He’s so self-conscious about sex that he won’t even masturbate, which is a real affliction in a show where the act is celebrated as the surest way to know oneself and conquer social anxieties. Through a series of humiliating events, Otis accepts the offer of the school’s rebellious beauty, Maeve (Emma Mackey), to start up an ad hoc therapy practice, where students of all stripes begin paying money for Otis’ insightful advice, which he’s gleaned from a lifetime of living with his mother’s sex-positive, you-do-you outlook.
Anderson is an absolute hoot as Otis’ mother — barging in on his anxieties and causing him to have new worries.
Despite his hang-ups, Otis has a mature head on his shoulders, and his advice to his peers — who come to him with Dan Savage-level questions about orgasms, anatomy and kinks — is always humane and generally spoton. Admirable attention is paid to supporting characters (especially Ncuti Gatwa’s performance as Otis’ best friend), breaking stereotypes in other high school comedies.
The sex these kids are having isn’t entirely consequence-free, either. A sexting incident involving a picture of a vagina leads to a rather funny but impressive I am Spartacus show of feminine solidarity at a school assembly. There’s also an interesting treatment on the subject of abortion, told not from inside the clinic, but outside, among the righteous protesters.
There’s the usual problem of Netflix drift for an episode or two midway through, where the plot dawdles while the writers and producers figure out an ending. Yet there’s an artfulness to the material and a genuine care on display here, too — a message that we are not just about the size and shape and inventive uses of our private parts.
If Sex Education were playing in American movie theatres, it would easily get an R rating and a sharp scolding from family-values watchdogs, which once again leaves a critic wondering how (or if) Netflix decides who the intended audience is for this sort of content. Though it will certainly prove too provocative for some parents, I can think of far, far worse things to discover on your teenager’s laptop.
Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson star in Sex Education, a provocative and frank new Netflix series.