“Everyone is having sex and you’re not. Also, you’re bad at sex and you should be ashamed”.
Being a teenager is rough. One day you’re playing in parks with your friends and the next you’re struggling with nightly emissions, public boners and a newfound obsession with the genital regions of the opposite sex. Also, with very little notice, everyone around you suddenly seems to be getting some. And you’re not. And you wouldn’t even know what to do if you did. Because you suck.
Sex Education is a show that feels right at home in this world of sexual insecurity and teenage angst. A British concoction, the show is somehow at once comfortingly familiar and startlingly alien, inhabited by characters who you could have actually gone to school with, in an educational system that is virtually unrecognisable to the average brit. Gone are the school uniforms, smart shoes, and inescapable feeling of awkwardness and shame (aka the bread and butter of British education), and in their place are Letterman Jackets, preposterously massive campuses and houses, 16-year olds with convertibles, and a general air of Americanness that feels more than a little like pandering to our trans-Atlantic cousins.
But is the show any good?
Relax, I’m getting to that.
The show focuses on Otis Milburn, a 16-year-old son of sex therapists, and his merry band of misfits, which primarily include his best friend Eric Effiong, an out-and-proud black teenager of African origin, and Maeve Wiley, an edgy “cool girl” with a tragic family history. The main cast is rounded out by Gillian Anderson, who plays Otis’ sex therapist mother with hilarious aplomb. Otis is a boy who, by sheer nature of his upbringing, is well versed in the ins-and-outs of sexual relationships, but is woefully inexperienced at them himself. Maeve is the bad girl with a reputation as the school “slut”. Their social spheres couldn’t be more different, and their worlds have no real reason to collide. However, through a frankly hilarious series of events, they do, Maeve realises Otis is a veritable goldmine of sexual advice, her eyes light up with dollar signs, and they become business partners. Otis deals out the sexual advice to chronically clueless teenagers, Maeve collects the money, and Eric cheers from the sidelines.
To describe the show as aptly as possible, it’s basically “The Inbetweeners” meets “Skins” meets “Woke” twitter. But, you know, in an accessible, non-pandering way. The show, like “The Inbetweeners”, almost revels in putting its main characters into uncomfortable, awkward or downright embarrassing situations for the sake of comedy. And it mostly works. This show is very, very funny, right from the off, actually. However, unlike “The Inbetweeners”, “Sex Education” actually has a heart, dealing with pressing societal issues such as abortion, homophobia, slut-shaming, and what to do when your neighbourhood bully has to come visit your house for a school project, but your penis-obsessed mother has decorated the entire house with massive ornamental dicks. You know, stuff we’ve all been through.
It handles all its main players with care, giving complexity to characters that would have undoubtedly floundered in the hands of less talented writers. A perfect example of this is Eric’s storyline in the second half of the series. Eric could have been the stereotypical “funny” black sidekick, existing only to quip and dole out advice to the long-suffering white protagonist, and in a lesser show, he would have been. However, in “Sex Education”, Eric is a fully formed character, who goes through a journey of self-realisation which is arguably more compelling than anything that Otis experiences in a show centred around him. In a lesser show, Eric, the gay black kid, would have been a mouthpiece with which to sound off about hot topic issues relating to homophobia and race, before being relegated to the periphery of the show once again. In “Sex Education”, the events that happen to Eric have long lasting effects, and change the character, his outlook and the way he interacts with the world of the show, just like a well written story is supposed to do. I’d recommend “Sex Education” to anyone simply based on Eric’s storyline alone, but fortunately, the show has merit outside of that.
In terms of cinematography, the show is also very gorgeously shot. Gone is the flat camera work of the teen comedies of yesteryear, this show actually has some flair to go along with its story. From the use of dolly zoom shots, to the general atmosphere and aesthetics of each scene, it’s obvious that a lot of work and care has gone into the making of this show, and it pays off for the most part, creating a piece of entertainment that is both visually engaging and emotionally affecting.
A small criticism of the show would be that, just like other Netflix shows that have come before it, the story starts to meander a bit after the halfway mark, and certain plot points almost feel a little bit like filler, but this problem never becomes bad enough to be too distracting, and the show still managed to keep me engaged all the way to the end. Also, the Americanisation of the British high school experience, and the fact that a time and place is never definitively given makes the show almost disorienting at first (I mean, are we in the 1980s or the 2010s?), however, the show’s superb writing and interesting, well fleshed out characters are more than enough to make you forget the fact that the world they inhabit makes no sense.
So, in conclusion, is the show any good?
Yes. Very. Stop reading this and go watch it now. Bye.
By John Allan