Netflix’s new original British show Sex Education is the Freaks-and-Geeks-meets-Breakfast-Club fresh take on teen sexuality that we wish we all grew up watching. From its diverse down-to-earth cast to the no-holds-barred discussion of sex written in a positive light, you may want to stop what you’re doing and binge this show right now. Though the show is set Wales, it weaves in themes like a lack of school uniforms, a sports-focused school with letterman-wearing-jacket jocks, and a big prom scene, making it feel like an interwoven United Kingdom-American universe that could have been any of our schools. This review contains slight spoilers.
Sex Education tells the story of Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), an endearingly awkward, sexually-repressed, sixteen-years-old student who lives with his single, sex therapist mum and does not want to ever talk about sex, let alone even masturbate. Seriously, he has a major blockage about it, something his mother continuously tries to analyze. Despite his fear of sex, Otis winds up striking up an unlikely business partnership with the rebellious, “slag” Maeve, which entails giving his fellow students sex advice.
From the start, what is so refreshing about this narrative is that whether he’s giving advice or talking to Eric about his own problems, Otis approaches sex with an open mind. Both boys never talk about sex in a braggadocious manner. They emphasize consent. They don’t groan about how they want to screw their crushes just so they can have sex but rather talk about feelings and considerations, even though – let’s face it – they’re just horny teenagers.
During “office hours” Otis never judges or shames his peers, no matter how strange or unusual their problems. He’s truly dedicated to helping people find their issues, even going so far as to watch lesbian porn in order to help a pair of newly-out-and-proud girls. Even better, Otis unabashedly opens himself to discussions of feelings without a complex of what this means for his masculinity. As someone who is flawed himself, he understands that everyone has body issues, worries whether they will find love, and is just trying to figure out how to be normal. He even willingly dresses up with Eric as Hedwig from Hedwig and The Angry Inch without a single joke about dressing in drag or suggesting that it might be emasculating.
Maeve is an equally intriguing character, played by newcomer Emma Mackey, who goes against the grain but manages to escape the anti-establishment bad-girl trope. On the outside, she is prickly and unfiltered – unabashedly harassing her English teacher during class, shoplifting, and flipping everybody off who looks at her the wrong way, but on the inside, she’s an intellectual who’s sleeping with the most popular guy in school, and makes money off of lazy students by charging them to write their essays for them.
Then there’s Otis’s best friend Eric (played by Ncuti Gatwa) who in my opinion, is the real star of the show. As the child of immigrants and one of only two gay people at his school, he constantly deals with bullies and pressure from his father to toughen up. He comes to understand that repressing his spirit only makes him angry and unrecognizable to himself, eventually embracing his gayness right down to his brilliant sense of style. By the end, Eric’s father realizes he may have something to learn from his own son, which was such a lovingly written take on the immigrant father/gay child narrative. Eric’s prom-look is also fantastically fierce right down to the glitter makeup and headscarf.
I also have to give a shout-out to Otis’ mother Jean, played by the amazing Gillian Anderson, aka Dana Scully. As a therapist and mom, Jean can’t help poking her nose into Otis’ life, especially when it comes to his sexuality. She grapples with dating and success in a way that feels relatable and down-to-earth. Because she is a professional at getting people to talk about their feelings, I did wish that she and Otis’s scenes led to more of a reckoning, but maybe more will come from this in season 2, which was just announced.
The one major issue with Sex Education is that, yet again, the story focuses on a white cis male who has all the answers. In reality, it seems like Eric might have more understanding of sexuality than Otis does. Or if Otis has a handle on the emotional aspect, Eric’s knowledge of the physical would have come in handy too. Why didn’t Otis include Eric in the business partnership? The other issue I had was the narrative of Maeve falling for Otis. She’s so brilliant and mature that her feelings for him – even going so far as to damage her shot at a future – seem less believable and more cliché. Leave the romance out of it and let Maeve get the popular boy and excel above her classmates like the bad-ass underdog she truly is.
Despite its patriarchal problem, Sex Education is a hilarious, heartwarming show about the teenage journey through love, lust, and, discovering your identity that will leave you wanting more.