You know what you’re in for with Sex Education right from the opening shot, which involves a fairly graphic sex scene between two teenagers. Look past all the hot ’n’ heavy humping, though, and you might notice the artistry of the composition itself, shot with a traveling camera that begins on an overhead lamp, surveys the ground floor with some parental characters (and a dog) whom we’ll get to know later, moves through a predictably suburban living and dining room, and climbs up the exterior wall to the bedroom, where the action is.
That shot is an example of the kind of deliberate thought and effort that went into the marvelous Sex Education, elevating the Netflix show beyond teen raunch (although there’s plenty of that). The British-made show is, of course, a frank exploration of the dramas that ensue when adolescent hormones ricochet off each other, but it’s also a lot smarter, funnier, and more emotionally engaging than you might be expecting.
The show’s backdrop is sort of a fantasy, though: Creator Laurie Nunn gathered a variety of influences to set Sex Education in a stew of English and American cultural accoutrements. As Nunn tells Radio Times, “I’ve always been really influenced by American film and TV shows; they played a really big part in my own teenage years, so that was always something I wanted to come back to. It’s definitely set in Britain, but we’ve made a very conscious choice to have that American, throw-back nostalgia, John Hughes feel to it.” So there are proms and letterman jackets and Breakfast Club-style lockers in the school hallways—something that’s bothered some British audiences, but will probably make most American viewers feel right at home.
Nunn goes on to say, “I’ve always been really frustrated that the British school experience is never portrayed with positivity or colour or warmth or hope; it always tends to be sticking two fingers up and saying, ‘I’m out of here as soon as I graduate. Whereas I think there’s an American feeling that, even though the films are riddled with anxieties and angst, you’d still look back at them as the best years of your life.”
There are other elements of Sex Education that aren’t quite true-to-life: The eight-episode series was filmed in a gorgeous, hilly nook on a Welsh river that feels like something out of a fairy tale (or a Rick Steves travelogue); the setting is largely rural, but none of the teens drive cars. Gillian Anderson's hairstyle is something out of a Tilda-Swinton-meets-cyberpunk fever dream. The music of Ezra Furman serves as a kind of Greek chorus; his ’50s- and ’80s-echoing tunes provide a noticeably lost-in-time sensation to the show (Furman and his band show up as performers at a school dance).
And perhaps most significantly, there’s an unreal but refreshing vibe of sex-positivity in the air, and the casting is mostly color-blind (although one character’s reckoning with his African heritage plays an important part in the second half of the season). Compared to the fabricated milieus of American teen shows like Riverdale and Gossip Girl, however, Sex Education doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
This is largely due to the terrific characters, all of whom are superbly written and just as effectively portrayed by the actors. Asa Butterfield is Otis, a shy, inexperienced teen who becomes an unlikely sex therapist for his fellow students; his mother Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, is an actual sex therapist whose lack of the usual parental hangups makes Otis’ life easy in some ways but more complicated in others. Otis’ gay best friend, Eric, is played by Ncuti Gatwa in an absolutely extraordinary performance that’s best not described, but experienced on its own terms (just watch it).
And he's matched by an incredible Emma Mackey as Maeve, a “bad girl” who goes into business with Otis; initially depicted as a tough cookie, Maeve becomes the show’s emotional center, an incredibly smart young woman trapped in unfortunate family circumstances. The three teen leads—Butterfield, Gatwa, and Mackey—are nothing short of extraordinary, and their characters evolve in all dimensions as the season progresses. I haven’t seen depictions of teenagers this good since Freaks and Geeks.
The student-giving-sex-therapy plot is an episodic device that the show outgrows almost immediately in favor of a more complex narrative, but the show wisely continues to use the titillating elements of sexuality as a front-door tactic to get to more interesting ideas about emotions and psychology. There’s puke and spunk and giant dicks and hand-drawn porn and all kinds of things pilfered from bad teen movies, but the show seesaws from improbably broad comedy to needle-sharp observational drama, all without sacrificing the identity and realism of the characters.
It’s an impressive balancing act that the show unfailingly sustains for all eight episodes. Sex Education make so many bold choices that you’d think it’d slip up on at least a couple of them, but somehow it doesn’t only hang together, it becomes something greater than the sum of its unusual parts. And the writers never blow it when tackling a sensitive issue, like abortion or gay-bashing or internet slut-shaming.
I don’t know if Sex Education is a show for teens, necessarily—it’s often outright filthy, and I imagine some will consider it unsuitable for anyone younger than the characters it depicts. But we’ve all been that age, and we’ve all dealt the things these characters deal with. The show might be set in a stylized world cobbled together from teen movies and TV shows of yore, but every smile and tear that Sex Education provokes feels utterly authentic.