'Sex Education': TV Review
Netflix's latest portrait of teen life blends raucous sex farce with empathy for the young adult experience and is anchored by fine performances from Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson.
As elusive demographics go, you can't go wrong programming to "former teens." No matter their buying power or brand loyalty, all viewers aged 20-to-??? have experienced, and presumably survived to laugh about, the zitty onset of puberty, the fumbling awkwardness of first love, the sweaty anxiety of essays and exams.
With shows like On My Block, the late-and-lamented Everything Sucks! and the first season of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix has excelled at targeting "former teens" in recent years and has another hilarious and cringe-worthy winner on its hands with the new dramedy Sex Education. A blend of Netflix genre peaks Big Mouth and The End of the F***ing World, Sex Education may also play to viewers actually in the midst of the nightmares of adolescence, but the show is aggressively gross and graphic in a way that will probably mortify teens and grownups alike — making it the perfect candidate to be watched in amused solitude and then, hopefully, discussed in candor.
Set in the photogenic and fictional British town of Moordale — played with lush, green majesty by locations in Wales — Sex Education is the story of Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), son of renowned sex and relationship therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson). Otis and longtime best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) aren't unpopular at Moordale Secondary; they're basically invisible, even though Eric is one of the school's only two gay students and thinks nothing of making a scene.
Otis is a virgin, despite (or perhaps because of) his mother's freely shared expertise and an upbringing in a house decorated by sex totems and casually displayed pornography. He's so mixed up inside that he can't even bring himself to masturbate, and that this is a major plot point in Sex Education should tell you something. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in knowledge gleaned via overheard conversations between his mother and her various clients and one-night stands. When Otis accidentally gives reasonable advice to erection-plagued school bully Adam (Connor Swindells), son of the gruff headmaster (a tremendous Alistair Petrie), he attracts the attention of notorious bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey, answering the question, "Do we need a new, British Margot Robbie?" with a definitive "Yes, we absolutely do!"). Maeve, plagued and elevated to iconic status by typically inaccurate rumors of her sexual proclivities, sees the opportunity to parlay Otis' gifts into a lucrative teen counseling business, with complications both predictable — Otis swiftly falls in love with the unobtainable Maeve, serving as his client-supplying therapy pimp — and otherwise over eight satisfying episodes.
Sex Education hails from first-time creator Laurie Nunn and continues the multi-decade corrective to '80s romps in the Porky's vein, farces that treated sexuality as a male-driven competition and women as objects of male entitlement. Otis and his perspective are the story's point of entry, but Sex Education knows how ill-formed Otis' knowledge-base is, never cuts him slack when his kernels of wisdom are short-sighted or deluded and never loses track of how Otis is just as confused as everybody else at his school. The show is wildly empathetic and completely committed to, at every turn, understanding that high school is a time in which people are swiftly defined as one thing and yet are rarely that simple.
The result is a wonderful ensemble in which every character is presented one way, usually for immediately comic value, and then taken to unexpected or, if slightly expected, compassionate places. The supporting characters and performances deepen as the show goes along, starting as a wacky rogue's gallery and eventually just becoming a realized world in which initially daffy airhead Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood, turning every line to comic gold) or perverse anime-drawing Lily (Tanya Reynolds, pointedly odd then wholly recognizable) can be introduced seemingly as the butt of jokes and then become the dramatic hook of whole episodes later on.
The whole series follows that model, as directors Ben Taylor (Catastrophe) and then Kate Herron craft rhythms in which a lewd-and-breezy joke about a boner or pubic grooming can lull you into easy laughter just in time for something emotionally devastating or impossibly sweet. Gatwa's performance is especially integral to the show's ability to swap tones, playing as perhaps excessively broad and flamboyant until exactly the moment it pivots into drama and its initially broad scale suddenly makes sense. So many of the first season's storylines are so careful and so effective that my frustration at something like big-dicked meanie Adam's all-too-predictable arc becomes magnified.
Nunn and her team of writers may not have a lot of TV experience, but they know TV and mostly avoid its familiar genre traps. Even for those storylines that tend toward genre cliche — and if you haven't figured out by early in the premiere where Adam's character is going by the finale, I suspect you've never seen a movie or show set in high school before — the execution is solid enough to make me believe that a second season, one that finds everybody with just a bit more storytelling under their belts, might still flip the script.
That the cast is dominated by young, relatively inexperienced actors setting themselves up for future stardom doesn't take away from its equally strong, familiar leads. Butterfield, pegged as next-big-thing for a decade now, has an easy comic touch, believably switching between nervous wreck and old soul, and has unforced chemistry with both Mackey, a clear breakout here, and ray-of-light Patricia Allison as Ola, a differently complicated love interest. The show is very good at not tolerating Otis' more insistent failings, and yet Butterfield keeps his appeal on a spectrum of British precocity that runs from Pip to Adrian Mole.
Anderson, sporting her reliably more-British-than-the-British accent, has a ball with a binary-smashing role that lets her play both maternal and lascivious and to pointedly drop clinical dialogue about "scrotal anxiety" with a twinkle. She has most of her scenes in a single country house location in a Welsh valley, and it feels like this may have been her most fun vacation ever.
It's an escape that viewers are likely to relish as well, at least in the lighter moments — and when Sex Education gets heavy, its messages are usually about the importance of self-affirmation and the necessity of proper communication and understanding. They're lessons surely worth heeding.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Alistair Petrie, Connor Swindells, Tanya Reynolds, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Aimee Lou Wood, Patricia Allison
Creator: Laurie Nunn
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)