Sex Education: Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy is naughty and nice
James R | On 10, Jan 2019
Season 4 premieres on Thursday 21st September 2023. This review is based on Season 1.
“Every one is either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging.” Those are the wise words of Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), best friend of Otis (Asa Butterfield), in the school playground. They ease us into a TV show that understands the universality of what goes on between the sheets, but doesn’t hesitate to dive right into the specifics – just not the ones you think.
That’s the brilliance of Sex Education: it’s a series that doesn’t dwell on technical or practical instructions, but focuses on the important details, such as why sex matters, what it does or doesn’t, can or can’t mean, and when it is and isn’t appropriate. After decades of pernicious media norms have established imbalanced social expectations, primarily of women, in the bedroom, Netflix’s series is a refreshing correction to the same old narrative. It’s also a comedy – and it’s very, very funny.
Created and written by Laurie Nunn, the series is an instantly timeless take on the raunchy teen movie, but wonderfully British with it. There’s no group of geeky males trying to lose their virginity here. There’s not even a high school – events take place at Moordale Secondary. And, in the show’s smartest touch, it’s not just our British protagonist who’s socially insecure and repressed; everyone is. And so, when Otis accidentally finds himself parroting his sex therapist mum’s advice to a boy with a (ahem) private problem, the notion of talking about these things is so novel (and effective) that it inspires his classmate, Maeve (Emma Macke), to open up their own clinic. Sex education – at a price.
It’s a shrewd scheme, and one that immediately starts having an impact. Firstly, Otis starts to fall for Maeve. But secondly, and more importantly, he starts listening to others. This is a show that, not unlike Orange Is the New Black, works because it isn’t just about one hero and a bunch of stereotypes: almost every character gets fleshed out in some way, bringing depth and shade to the kind of genre archetypes that a lesser programme would only treat superficially. In the season’s first half alone, Otis encounters everything from a guy not being able to finish and girlfriends having trouble getting intimate to someone’s sensitive gag reflex and whether others should do it with the lights on or off. The common theme with all of them? Communication, whether it’s being open with a friend or family or discussing things with a partner.
The cast’s chemistry is brilliant enough to make that communication both hugely entertaining and surprisingly moving. Ncuti Gatwa delivers a star-making turn as Eric, an out-and-proud teen who is nonetheless a wallflower in his school year, something he’s both pleased and frustrated about. He’s supportive, accepting, kind and hysterical, but also emerges as one of the key players who enables Sex Education’s deft juggling of tones, with the season’s halfway point pivoting gracefully from funny to poignant.
The rest of the class is played with increasingly distinctive performances by a talented young cast, including Patricia Allison as the understanding, unexpected Ola, Aimee Lou Wood as the hilarious not-as-airheaded-as-you’d-think Aimee, and Connor Swindells as Adam, the bullying, well-endowed son of the headmaster (a deliciously deadpan Alistair Petrie), whose arc may be familiar but is nonetheless nuanced enough to be rewarding.
Amid this up-and-coming ensemble, Gillian Anderson is marvellous as Otis’ mature mum, Jean, who takes pleasure in her work, and in talking frankly about things that Otis and the others aren’t used to voicing. It’s a treat to see her given such a deceptively complex role to play, as Jean navigates the tough line between protecting her son and embarrassing him, while also making sure she has an active and healthy personal life. She knocks droll comments out of the park with a British accent like Emma Thompson’s estranged cousin; you can’t wish anyone a genuinely happy 2019 until they’ve seen Anderson say the words “man milk” with such hilarious relish. The introduction of a ruggedly charming Scandinavian handyman into her house, meanwhile, is a delightful cute counterpart to James Purefoy’s wonderfully horrible Remi, her ex and Otis’ dad.
Holding this diverse group together are Emma Mackey and Asa Butterfield. Mackey is a delight as the whip-smart outsider, whose dark quips and cultural references are hidden beneath a sarcastic surface, but that’s because she turns that type into something more, giving us a glimpse of Maeve’s poignant home life, and a vulnerable side that’s exposed not by Otis but by a surprising possible romance with Jackson (a scene-stealing Kedar Williams-Stirling), the school’s swimming star. Butterfield, meanwhile, is the perfect fit for Otis, able to be awkward and likeable, but also increasingly out of his shell, as Eric and Maeve – and his apparent gift of sexual understanding – build his confidence and sense of identity.
In an inspired move, the show makes our hero a virgin, able to talk relationships and emotional intelligence while still quietly holding onto his own unspoken fear and inexperience; he grows as a character, but only by putting the focus on others, both helping and learning from them. That’s possible because the scripts follow his (and his mother’s) principle of never judging anyone. For all Eric’s chat at the start of the series, that’s the real universality at play: the show knows how little knowledge Otis has, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, because Otis’ shortcomings only make him as confused and uncertain about life as everyone else.
It’s a message that’s guaranteed to resonate with audiences around the world on Netflix – helped no end by the show’s enjoyably transatlantic vibe. A love letter to America’s teen movies of all, there’s all the candid naughtiness of a gross-out US comedy, but it’s balanced with equally honest heart and sympathy, while still finding time for playfully apt song choices (“Come Clean” gets an airing in the opening episode), slapstick classroom comedy and painful personal chats. Director Ben Taylor (Catastrophe) is no stranger to rapid-fire dialogue and brings Moordale’s world to life with colourful chaos, while British helmer to watch Kate Herron (BBC Three’s Five by Five) navigates the series’ subtle swerve into darker, more serious territory, without losing any of the show’s cheerfully horny momentum.
The result is that rare thing: a comedy that delivers a projectile vomiting scene that’s actually laugh-out-loud funny, yet still finds room to explore issues like private photographs being made public or the anxiety that can lurk behind even the most popular kid. The best coming-of-age comedy since Amazon’s Red Oaks, Sex Education sweeps everyone back to a time when not having a lock on your bedroom door at the wrong moment can be mortifying – and when simply standing up in a school assembly can be a life-changing act of defiance and solidarity.