Teen sex com­edy’s in a class of its own

The New Zealand Herald - - Entertainment - Hank Stuever look

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.

Photo / AP

Asa But­ter­field and Gil­lian An­der­son star in Sex Ed­u­ca­tion, a provoca­tive and frank new Net­flix se­ries.

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