In Netflix’s joyous show “Sex Education,” Otis Millburn (Asa Butterfield) may not have any sexual experience, but he has gotten quite the education from his sex therapist mom Jean (Gillian Anderson).
As Otis and his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) start their second to last year at Moordale High, one thing seems to be on everybody’s mind: sex. Although Otis may have extensive knowledge of the subject, he is deeply uncomfortable with his own body.
The show could have devolved into a farcical sex comedy, centering itself around white-male-protagonist Otis’ journey towards his sexual awakening. Instead, Otis opens an underground sex clinic with the badass and brilliant Maeve (Emma Mackey), lending a listening ear to their desperately confused peers.
“Sex Education” engages in a frank, empathetic discussion of teenage sex and all its complications. Revenge porn, homophobia, toxic masculinity, abortion and the emotional complexities of sex are all addressed with both light-hearted comedy—there is a full-on Spartacus moment with the line “It’s my vagina”—and with a sincere, empathetic eye.
The graphic nature of the content, however, has attracted some controversy, as Netflix took things well beyond the carefully staged PG-13 sex of cable television. Seeing as a sex scene occurs within the first few seconds of the pilot episode, the show might be more graphic than many American high school shows, but this also makes it a much more accurate portrayal of the high school experience.
Part “Skins” and part “The Breakfast Club,” “Sex Education” blends a nostalgic, John Hughes aesthetic with a more grounded teen drama. The fictional, bucolic setting is filmed in a sun-drenched haze and it’s hard to tell what era the show is set in. The clothes of the show are distinctively 80s, as characters of every age and social group wear neon and wild patterns. My favorites include Eric’s party getup of head-to-toe neon orange and Jean Millburn’s glorious jumpsuits and platinum hair. The Millburn household, a chalet perched over a river, has floral wallpaper and erotic art that could have walked right out of the ’70s. However, at times it was genuinely jarring to see Otis with a smartphone right next to his Joy Division poster and record collection.
The high school experience in “Sex Education” is distinctly American as well, something writer Laurie Nunn has acknowledged. Unlike the sometimes austere depiction of British high schools, Moordale High looks classically American: letterman jackets, prom, lockers and school spirit.
Though I love the visual references to John Hughes visual films, I was initially worried the characters would stay superficial John Hughes-style stereotypes lacking complexity: the repressed nerd, the secretly sensitive tough girl, the jock, the gay best friend. They do begin as somewhat simplified versions of themselves but like a true Hughes film they reveal more and more layers as the show progresses. The punk rebel Maeve has read all of Jane Austen. Her athletic boyfriend Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), who is also head boy, struggles with anxiety and the school bully has a complicated relationship with his headmaster father.
The relationships the students have, with each other and their families, are one of the show’s greatest strengths. Maeve and Otis start out as caricatures, either sullen or manically uncomfortable, but they settle into their personalities as their relationship blooms from a business partnership to something more. Otis and his mother have a slightly dysfunctional, but nonetheless deeply loving, relationship driven by a dryly hilarious Gillian Anderson who has absolutely no conception of boundaries. Though she may not give Otis the space he needs and exposes him to all sorts of sexual dysfunction by holding therapy sessions in their home, their relationship is ultimately grounded in communication and respect.
The best relationship on the show is the one between Eric and his dad. Sweet, outgoing and openly gay Eric feuds with the swing band and is bullied, not for his sexuality, but for getting an erection while playing French horn during an assembly. Eric struggles to reconcile his developing identity with the traditions of his religious African family. Even the emotions that shade his father’s face as he talks with his son about identity – hurt, tentative acceptance, fear for his son’s safety, love – make their relationship so relatable and deeply human. Just like their children, the parents of “Sex Education” make mistakes – and unlike the distant, invisible parents of many other school dramas, they care deeply about their children.
Watched by over 40 million households in the first few weeks and renewed for a second season, “Sex Education” was successful most likely because of its compassion for its subjects. The characters sometimes veer into high school caricature but are grounded in warmth and complexity that grows with every episode. With an old-school aesthetic and surprising realism, “Sex Education” views teen sexuality and their developing identities with an empathetic gaze.