A Fantasyland Where Society is Better, but Sex is Still Weird
Netflix’s new dramedy Sex Education takes place in a wondrous world where toxic masculinity is like, totes passé, and even the high school bullies are Woke AF. Add to this a dusting of eighties teen movie pastiche for style and an American-seeming town in Great Britain for setting, and you’ve got a full-throttle wish fulfillment fantasy of a show. I loved every minute of it.
The series centers on Otis (Asa Butterfield), the 16-year-old son of a sex therapist named Jean, played by a buoyant Gillian Anderson in a welcome change from her typically solemn roles. When Otis proves surprisingly good at giving sex advice, his enterprising crush and feminist harpy dreamgirl Maeve (Emma Mackey) persuades him to run an underground sex therapy clinic at their school.
When Sex Education is The Family Business
The writers structure the show in a semi-procedural format, with each cold open revealing the central sex problem to be addressed within the episode. While this could easily become too formulaic, they employ the episodic themes with a light touch. The gimmick ultimately helps to advance the series arc of Otis’ own self-discovery.
Tales of sexual awakening are as old as time immemorial, but Otis’ unique situation allows us to dig deeper into the pathos of early sexual experience than this genre usually provides. Otis has grown up with an understanding of sex as natural and good. He sees women as people and not objects, so he doesn’t agonize over performing virility for his male peers (see: Porky’s, American Pie, almost every teen sex comedy).
Instead, he finds himself unable to masturbate to climax and trying to appear sexually normal to his ever-observant mother. As we see in his sessions with his classmates, it’s clear that Otis doesn’t promote toxic masculinity. Without that societal ill to blame, he’s forced to question his perceived sexual inadequacy on a deeper psychological level.
Similarly, Otis’ best friend Eric (the waggish Ncuti Gatwa), an out gay teenager who wishes desperately to be cool, doesn’t wrestle with his homosexuality or struggling to come out. It’s so refreshing to see a multi-dimensional LGBTQ character whose sexuality is neither downplayed nor wholly the point. Sex Education drives this home through Eric’s fixation on winning over fellow gay student Anwar, a social kingpin who rejects him not because he’s gay, but because he’s a goober.
And so the social order of high school remains in effect, even if the student body looks thankfully less whitewashed than teen comedies of yore. Everyone treats Maeve as an untouchable, despite her intellect and charm, because of her “cock-biter” reputation and low-income upbringing. The cool girls may be thrilled to have a stylish gay Indian kid in their ranks, but they forbid newcomer Aimee from associating with a purported “slag” who lives in a caravan.
Hypocrisy lies at the heart of most of the show’s conflicts, which makes it widely relatable. Jean, for instance, can fully recognize and dissect bad behavior, while still finding it impossible to resist. Despite her hyper-awareness, she has a total blind spot when it comes to the ways she violates her son’s boundaries. This sort of moral licensing, where we think of ourselves as good right-minded people so we forgive ourselves our immoral actions, makes for nuanced and compelling characterization across the board.
This character depth pairs well with the show’s otherwise familiar teen comedy tropes. Aside from the sex-therapy element, the plot largely centers on the love triangle among Otis, Maeve, and “Head Boy” Jackson, the child of overly-precious lesbian moms. But it’s remarkable how much new ground this plot formula can cover when all of your characters contain multitudes. When these narratives expand to organically include more than just straight, pretty white people, it’s even more satisfying.
Like the 80s, But Better
Stylistically, Sex Education pays tribute to American teen movies of the eighties, with the popular kids in Heathers cosplay, Letterman jackets aplenty, and even a Risky Business dance break. Creator Laurie Nunn has confirmed that they wanted the show to be ambiguously both British and American in feel. Instead of having the Stranger Things “all-the-movies-you-love-in-a-blender” effect, they mostly limit the homage to the visual aspects. It only feels marginally apparent in the plot itself.
In fact, the show approaches its subject matter in such a modern way that it ends up depicting a world far more enlightened than the one we actually inhabit. It’s like everyone dressed for a John Hughes film, but they’re here to phonebank for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The heightened aesthetic and unplaceable setting hint that this isn’t meant to reflect the world we live in, but rather to give us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be.
That’s precisely why Sex Education stands out from other coming-of-age stories. Rather than retreading the narrative that Life is Hard because people are shitty, it’s exploring the ways that Life is Still Hard even when people aren’t shitty. We’re all just uneven lumps of flesh awkwardly poking and petting at one another, hoping the other fleshy lumps think we’re cool. The supreme mortification of teenage sexuality is one of the great unifiers of humankind. By widening its scope on this wealth of embarrassments against the backdrop of a socially-progressive wet dream, Sex Education proves itself to be downright delightful.