Netflix’s delightfully horny, sex-positive British teen sex comedy lets Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson fumble their way through the uncertainties of teenage sexuality.
I don’t think there’s any better way for me to describe Netflix’s newest British teen sex comedy than with the climax (pun intended) of the first episode: a teenage boy, having sex in an empty classroom, managing to orgasm for the first time while screaming “I’M OWNING MY NARRATIVE! I’M OWNING MY NARRATIVE!”
This, ladies and gentlemen, sluts and prudes, is the wild world of Sex Education. This is a world of teens trying their hardest to act like adults and, in doing so, acting nothing more and nothing less like the awkward, horny, modern adolescents they truly are. This is a world of swimming pool scissoring, of comic book tentacle porn, of boys so muscular they are regularly described as “shaped like an ice cream cone.” This is a world where, as one character notes in the first episode, absolutely everyone is doing it – or at least trying to.
This is also the world of Otis (Asa Butterfield, all grown up from his Hugo days), a 16-year-old wallflower who can’t bring himself to masturbate and whose mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files), happens to be a sex and relationship therapist. At the start of sixth form at Moordale, a fancy academy nestled in the English countryside, both Otis and his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, destined for greatness) find themselves adrift on the sea of sexual tension that pervades the halls; Otis because of his inexperience, Eric because he’s one of two openly gay boys at school, and both of them because they are nearly invisible to the rest of the student body.
But all that changes when Otis lets slip to punk-rock outsider Maeve (Emma Mackey) that he’s picked up a trick or two from his mother. It turns out Otis has a knack for fixing people’s sexual issues, and Maeve is just the sort of person to befriend him and knock out a solid profit from their partnership, pimping Otis out to anyone who finds themselves in need of some talk therapy about their genitals. Their first client, Adam’s (Connor Swindells) need to own his narrative is only the beginning. Within a couple of episodes, the plot settles into an easy client-of-the-week rhythm, and we’re off to the races.
I’m going to be quite honest: I fucking love this show.
With a tight season of eight episodes, the procedural format never gets boring, as the writers try out new combinations and throw Otis ever-deeper in over his own head. It helps that our so-called “expert” actually isn’t an expert in anything; Otis’ therapist skills are only due to what he’s picked up from Jean, which leaves plenty of room for him to grow alongside his clients. It’s a refreshing change from the usual procedural formula of our protagonist chuckling, Holmes-like, as he solves the case.
Which brings me to the social dynamics. A school is essentially a captive cast, which is why high school shows often rely on the assumption of a huge student body in order to keep bringing in new intrigue. Not so with Sex Education. As the season progresses, we get to know the same small rotation of kids extremely well, even being able to pick out a more nuanced hierarchy than simply nerds-versus-popular-kids. It’s refreshing to see a character be a client of Otis’ in one episode, only to return and become a romantic interest for someone else later down the line. All of this careful social maneuvering and deep character development helps to establish Moordale as a truly lived-in school, and helps the audience feel like we know what’s going on as much as Otis, Maeve, or Eric do. It also opens the door not just to casual diversity, but to actual inclusion of queer and PoC students, which is a welcome addition to Netflix’s often-tokenizing programming.
Jean gets her own storyline in this season, too, and Anderson gets some material worth her star status as the character evolves from a pretty cool mom at first glance (she’s so matter-of-fact about sex!) into a complicated and often overbearing maternal figure (she followed Otis to a party??). Over the course of the season, we see similar forays into the home lives of other teens, such as Maeve, Adam, and swimming star Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), that help us broaden our scope and think about the larger ways that people’s pasts and environments affect their relationships, even at the most intimate level.
If there’s one sticking point I have with the series, it’s in its handling of time. Sex Education builds its sets and color palettes in a way that evokes the 1960s, despite being firmly set in the modern age. It’s jarring to see Jean using an ancient-looking laundry machine in an episode that also features revenge porn. Perhaps the series’ designers were aiming for a parallel with the pioneering research of Masters and Johnson (as seen in the Showtime series Masters of Sex), but this connection is never explicitly made, and it seems unnecessary anyway – after all, people have always been Doing It. Then again, perhaps the stylistic choice is meant to evoke the days of more classical teen stories, and it does aid in evoking a small-town, kids-on-bikes aesthetic that offsets the more outlandish plot points.
Nitpicking aside, Sex Education has premiered with an exciting and raucous first season. Ultimately, the genius of this show isn’t in the ways it’s about sex, but instead in the ways it isn’t. Instead, it’s woven a rich tapestry of friendships, family bonds, and coming-of-age dilemmas. Here, the world gets dark but never hopeless, and support often comes from unexpected places. And yeah, sometimes you just can’t get it up when you need to. But the important part is owning your narrative, knowing why you can’t get it up and being okay with it. And through trial, error, and proper protection, Otis and his friends are learning how to do exactly that.
Sex Education gets into the pants of Netflix subscribers everywhere January 11th.