Sex Education is initially a somewhat alarming concoction for a television series; it’s a teen centred comedy drama that deals with sex, which can’t help but set off alarm bells given that the teen sex comedy genre is one that has given us the likes of Porky’s, American Pie and Road Trip over the years, and not exactly productions to celebrate.
The nature of television, especially that of American network television, has meant that teen series have never really been able to go as far as their big screen counterparts in depicting sexual activity, and that sometimes has been for the best. Add outrageous sexual antics to the mix of a coming of age tale, and filmmakers, and let’s be more specific here, male filmmakers, aim for gross out humour and an attitude that veers between ‘let’s get laid’ to ‘girls are for sex’ storytelling, primarily because so many of teen sex farces are centred around male protagonists.
Anytime popular American teen series have dealt with sex it’s been in more nuanced and dialogue driven ways, with characters usually debating amongst themselves or their friends about whether or not they should, before kissing at the end of the episode, and the screen turning to black before we see anything too raunchy.
Sex Education was a wonderful change of pace when it premiered on Netflix last year. There was a worry when watching the first episode that the series was just going to be more jokes centred around erections, masturbation and comedic sex antics, and yes it does have a lot of that, but like so many wonderful teen-led series and movies doing the rounds today, it addresses those concerns in a wonderful way, populated by a superb and diverse ensemble cast, and manages the wonderful thing of being both hilariously funny and deeply moving.
By the time the first season ended, the series had shown itself to be a witty powerhouse, able to mine comedy, engaging drama and a lovely dose of teen angst to maximum effect, while also being beautifully visual in a way British teen series seldom are. On a visual level, it shares a lot of DNA with End of the F***ing World, in that it seems to be set in a Britain of lush countryside and Wes Anderson-like forests that are incredibly photogenic.
A lot of that was down to wearing its American influences on its sleeve; this might be a British-set series, but it takes place in a secondary school that feels like it’s been put there from the middle of something like Riverdale or High School Musical; the kids don’t wear uniforms, there is a swimming pool on campus for the successful swim team and the school logo is made up of a giant letter, and yet the entire cast is British and the series has a distinctly British flavour, but made up of visuals that have undeniably helped sell it on an international streaming service like that of Netflix.
The series in lesser hands could have just become a vehicle for smutty sex jokes and embarrassing set pieces involving bodily functions and admittedly it does do some of that, but it never allows those elements to become the driving force of the series. Instead, there’s a sweetness here that many of Sex Education’s forebears never have and the fact that it’s written by a female writer, in this case Laura Nunn, means that it never falls into the realm of bawdy that some lesser talented male writers and directors do, and which makes the likes of Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds such hard viewing in this day and age.
The most subtle and emotional story of the season involves Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood). A character who initially seemed to be played in season one for comedic value, but who showed depth by choosing friendship over the main clique that drives the school’s inner social standings, like so many television shows nowadays, the shadow of #MeToo and #TimesUp rears its head with a thought provoking and poignant portrayal of the psychological effects of sexual assault. It never once becomes sensationalist, instead building itself around Aimee’s inability to board the bus that the assault takes place on and managing to do so when the rest of the female cast help her do so.
It’s a profoundly emotional moment and brilliant in its delivery.
The YA/teen genre is going through a tremendous period right now, with the likes of Lady Bird, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Eighth Grade, Moonlight, Booksmart and The Edge of Seventeen providing incredibly insightful, funny and moving portrayals of coming of age for characters of differing genders, races and sexualities, and being more respectful of some of their characters who aren’t white, or male.
For so long, whenever the genre filtered its story telling and characters through sex and sexuality, it did so in ways that were littered with bad taste jokes and a gender inequality that in today’s climate can leave a sour taste in the mouth. The likes of American Pie and Porky’s were box office hits, but they told their stories through a very male prism, as well as being written and directed by males, which meant that sex in it was usually pursued as a conquest, and also, frequently, in heteronormative ways.
Sex Education begins like it’s going to be Otis’ story, but the more it has continued, the more it has allowed itself to be devoted to the other character’s stories; best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, very much a MVP of the series) is Ghanaian-Nigerian and gay, while Otis’ crush Maeve (Emma McKay) comes with a storyline of her own involving a troubled family and home life that gets a bulk of the screen time. Even characters such as school bully Adam (Connor Swindells) comes with his own complexities, and his bullying of Adam is revealed to be the behaviour of that of a boy with a crush, unsure of his own sexuality and having to survive the toxic masculinity that stems from his own dad, who happens to be the school principal.
With eight episodes across each of its two very successful seasons, Nunn and her writers have given characters who would be caricatures in other productions incredible depth and complexities that has made the series such a profound joy, even when throwing in such scenes like the wanking montage that opens the second season, and which a certain British tabloid (you can probably guess which one) had major issues with. It’s a clear case of having the proverbial cake and eating it; the embarrassing set pieces are exactly that, and yet they can lead into conversations and moments of genuine character growth. In the space of its sixteen episode run, Sex Education has dealt with characters losing their virginity, the toxicity of so called ‘slut shaming’, figuring out one’s sexuality, and much more, and does so while also managing to be both genuinely hilarious and sex positive.
Netflix might be producing many teen series and films right now, and it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd, but this one really does. One might have been forgiven for wondering why Gillian Anderson, one of our very best actresses right now (and Dana Scully, obviously), was signing up to play a lead character’s mum in a teen sex comedy, and yet when a series is as good as this is, it’s no surprise she has, while the series never just relies on her to be ‘the mum’. As Jean, she gets to play embarrassing and embarrassed in such a way that it reminds one how fine a light comedic actress she is, but the series also gives the character her own relationships and character growth that is both funny and poignant.
The worst thing about binge-watching Netflix shows is having to wait another year for new episodes. Fingers crossed that Sex Education gets a third season; it seems to be a massive hit for them and honestly, who would have thought that a teen sex comedy such as this would be worthy of mention in the same breath as Lady Bird, Booksmart and The Edge of Seventeen. It might very well be the best teen television series on the streaming waves right now.