Some shows don’t exactly need to get all the details right to feel true. Good thing the Netflix series Sex Education isn’t trying to. It clearly wants to evoke a feeling that is both of our moment and timeless. But the show also wants to balance out its reverence for the classic teen comedies that inspired it with many truths that many of them couldn’t fathom, let alone address. So even though all the teens in Sex Education reside in a small, remote British town with accents to match, many of them also play American sports and dress in a way that would make many John Hughes characters swoon.
Regardless of their nationality, audiences won’t get too hung up on it once things get going. What exactly is going in this case? Well, Otis (Asa Butterfield) decides to set up a sex therapy clinic when a far cooler classmate, Maeve (Emma Mackey) – who has an even cooler resemblance to Margot Robbie – notices Otis seems to have a knack for guiding his peers through the unholy mess that is puberty. So they set up shop in secret to help the students at his school. For a fee, of course.
Part of Otis’s skills come from his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), a sex therapist who is so open she thinks nothing of not only asking her son all kinds of embarrassing, body-related questions, but crossing all sorts of boundaries. The result has left Otis with an odd mix of wisdom and repression. He possesses a vast knowledge of therapeutic methods, as well as a staggering grasp of sexuality, and the various ways the human body responds to pleasure. But he himself is unable to act on his knowledge and experience any kind of sexual pleasure, not only from another person, but himself.
He manages to skillfully help the kids who seek him out, many of whom feel like they don’t have anywhere else to go. They probably don’t, really. Even in our Internet age, it’s still hard to find the right advice on what to do when you overdose on Viagra, or want to track down the person threatening to post a very explicit picture of you, or when your vagina closes up when you try to have the sex you clearly want. Because while the adult characters are also (mostly) portrayed with compassion, this is a show about Otis and the teens who come to him for help. Not only are the girls’ desires and pleasure treated with sensitivity, the vulnerability of the boys are emphasized in a way not often seen. It’s all taken seriously without descending into moroseness, with even the abortion episode having its share of funny moments that emphasize the supportive bond the women form while they’re waiting to have the procedure done.
It’s the kind of vibes that bring to mind a live action Big Mouth. But Sex Education is even more daring in its willingness to show its diverse set of characters dealing with the kind of cringe-inducing moments that are a rite of passage for even the most well-adjusted teen, their place in the eternally brutal high school food chain, and yes, various kinds of explicit sex without judgement or exploitation. The only time Sex Education does stumble is in the beginning, where it insists so much on its own timelessness that the mixture of ’80s décor with modern diversity becomes jarring, especially when it leads to a long delay in the appearance of modern tech. Once that’s out of the way though, the show is smart enough to have its characters take the lead. Needless to say, it’s all the better for it.