Critic's Notebook: 'Sex Education' and the Difference Between British and American Portrayals of Teen Sexuality

The Brits may do it better, but a look back reveals that many American TV series have also grappled with teen sexuality in interesting and valuable ways.
Courtesy of Netflix
'Sex Education' on Netflix is a fantastic, funny and blunt look at teen sexuality.

This is a column that started off as a firm idea in my head until one or three doubts crept in and I did a little crowdsourcing on Twitter, whereupon it went to hell, as sometimes happens. It still contains a firm idea, a premise I believe to be very strong — that British television has historically been more audacious and fearless when it comes to the unflinching (and often hilarious) depiction of teenage sexuality, from the obvious examples like Skins, Queer as Folk and Inbetweeners to, well, countless more, including Netflix's brilliant recent dramedy Sex Education.

I love Sex Education — yet another reminder, on the heels of The End of the F***ing World, that Netflix still taps its best stuff from Britain — mostly because it's gutsy, raunchy, graphic and leans insistently into what would formerly be described as the Beavis and Butt-Head sexual imaginings of 14-year-old boys, but was created by a woman, Laurie Nunn, and has a writing staff made up of six people, five of whom are women. The show essentially embodies the fact that in Britain, both genders have gleefully grasped the knob of gloriously inappropriate sexual comedy and pulled hard on it for generations.

Sex Education is another series so adeptly confident in its voice and choices that when it makes some dubious decisions it ends up registering as laudably audacious instead of misguided in judgment or tone. Many great series get away with this sleight of hand. The more you watch Sex Education  — and it's absolutely worth multiple viewings — the more you realize it has pulled off a series of improbable tricks, like being both sentimental and brazenly snarky; more subtle than it initially appears; perfectly cast yet totally underrated in that regard; and effortlessly, wonderfully natural in its handling of minor characters.

All of that would be, for a separate appreciation, fine elements to extol. Oh, but Sex Education is, I think — or let's say I mostly thought — proof positive that the Brits have an expertise in the portrayal of raw and honest teenage sexuality in the same way that Americans have an expertise in glossy and romanticized depictions of violence.

Watching Sex Education the first time around seemed to affirm what I'd already believed, disdainfully: that as a nation of Puritans raised on broadcast television standards, we were far more comfortable showing a person getting their face shot off than showing a glimpse of a nipple.

For so many years, sexuality — particularly surrounding horny teenagers and what that might look like if explored through drama rather than comedy — scared the bejesus out of people who made television. Any "brave" steps in that direction were applauded, but in reality, our take on it was light years behind Europe, for many obvious reasons.

And yes, the proliferation of cable helped a bit, at least in terms of the balance of stories of adult desire versus tales of bloody violence. But while strides in portraying sexual complexity were being made, American television seemed to feel it was easier to couch these stories in animation — Big Mouth, etc. — than tackle them directly, at least on the same level as the Brits.

But was that true? I went back over the countless TV series I've watched and reviewed through the years and, sure enough, had some doubts that the premise was solid (though, in fairness, we've all written think pieces that were great in our heads and wobbled more noticeably in execution). So I wasn't quite sure. Though there were fresh and fearless bits in Hulu's PEN15, the show was about seventh-grade girls. I think aging up the characters by a couple of years and focusing on high school kids who either have sex on the brain or are actually acting on those thoughts is a higher-stakes level of drama (or comedy — though, again, I think American comedies tend to laugh away issues of sexuality too quickly rather than allowing them to be more truthful and perhaps even more dangerous; a longer look before the punch line is a hallmark of British series that are, again, more comfortable with the subject matter).

So, I wanted to only count scripted American series that looked at teen sexuality in the formative high school years. (That not only ruled out something like Degrassi on several fronts, but other worthwhile series, as well.)

That doubt I mentioned earlier about whether I was right about American series falling down a bit in this regard? It began to grow. Maybe we'd done a better job than I remembered? I put the column off repeatedly. I'd come back to it after watching clips of series I'd forgotten about (not in their entirety, like they were ghosts, but in the sense that maybe I'd forgotten certain story arcs that actually tackled the issues I saw Sex Education doing so masterfully). In the back of my mind, I knew shows like Better Things were doing excellent, explorative work here. But historically?

So I decided to put the idea out on Twitter, this way: "What in your estimation are the best American scripted TV series to tackle teen sexuality? NO animated series. I'm guessing Freaks and Geeks, The O.C. and Buffy will be considered. (U.S. series haven't been great in this area.) And go."

Oh, boy.

Within seconds, I got back a GIF of Friday Night Lights, a series I loved (you know, except for that second season) and yet managed to glitch completely in the moment. It was from Monica Beletsky, a prolific producer and screenwriter who had, of course, worked on Friday Night Lights (and Parenthood — duh, another show worth mentioning), and immediately I knew that A) My premise was doomed and B) It was probably a good thing I was crowdsourcing on Twitter, which I mostly stay off of these days unless I'm reading about music.

More and more popped up — often a flood of tweets about the same show: My So-Called Life (soooooo many of those); Dawson's Creek; the new iteration of One Day at a Time; Beverly Hills, 90210; Gilmore Girls; Gossip Girl; Party of Five; The Carrie Diaries; Awkward; Everwood; Shameless; and some others I was dubious about but most I acknowledged had done some pointed, honest work (and clearly hit a nerve with people). It was an immediate recognition that certain shows, from James at 15 to Fresh Off the Boat, had tackled these themes, in their own kind of way. Was that way as direct as the Brits? Not always. But as Beletsky's GIF (of Connie Britton as Tami Taylor, tears in her eyes, dropping the line, "If it ever starts feeling like he's taking it for granted, or you're not enjoying it, you can stop anytime") pointed out so effectively, shows like Friday Night Lights were more than up to the task. Fellow critic Emily Nussbaum from The New Yorker chimed in with The Fosters, which is not only spot-on but also led to an admission I had to make about both blind spots and shows that the Peak TV era had kept me from. Several other astute folks mentioned MTV's Undressed, which I had somehow completely missed, but others swear comes closest to that brazen Brit directness.

All of it gave me great pause. I put the column — this column — off a bit to think more on it. I'm sure there were even more series, less obvious ones, that may have tackled the sticky, complicated and painfully funny escapades of teen sexuality and I'd either forgotten them or never seen them. Eventually I decided this was a pretty good example of where it's more important to have a conversation about a topic than to be so firmly tied to a conviction.

I think now I'm making a more modified argument — you know, critics are stubborn, after all — that it doesn't come as naturally to American television as it does to British television; another look at Sex Education confirmed that. But I absolutely was wrong slagging off series from the States; so many of those aforementioned illustrate the depth of that dismissive notion.

In the end, I think the best thing to come out of this was not only could I recommend that people who haven't yet sampled Sex Education do so immediately, but also I could promote the notion of going back into the archives to check out any number of American shows — but certainly Friday Night Lights, My So-Called Life, Parenthood and others listed above. Consider that a different kind of sex education.