This funny, heartwarming comedy about adolescent and teen angst will surely be one of 2019's sleeper hits.
When young adolescent teens and their parents are having conversations, the one topic that is deemed taboo and a ‘no-go zone’ is undoubtedly ‘Sex’. But what if your parent had an unspeakable amount of knowledge in this area – how would it affect your daily life? This is what 16-year-old Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) has come to terms with due to his mother Jean’s (Gillian Anderson) unusual occupation as a sex therapist in Netflix’s new comedy-drama Sex Education, a delightfully heartwarming series that is truthful, funny, and is in no doubt on course to become one of 2019’s early sleeper hits.
Otis is a socially-awkward teenager who not only has the most honest and open conversations with his mum (‘Sweetheart- I’ve noticed you’re pretending to masturbate’) but is also struggling to fit in at high school along with his gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), and Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), a social outcast and bad girl in the eyes of her peers. Eventually Maeve befriends Otis and soon, they both decide to secretly start a clinic to deal with their fellow students’ ongoing sexual problems.
From the outset, the elements of this show spell a possible recipe for disaster, full of cheap jokes and awkward performances. But thanks to a writer’s team headed by playwright Laurie Nunn (this being her first TV show), it incredibly manages to steer itself away from that doomed predicament and towards being somewhat of a potential zeitgeist for this generation’s teens and young adults. The fact that it’s set in Britain and stars a British cast, but contains some American elements that create an unusual cross-Atlantic blend, is a very smart move. If the show was fully-set across the pond, it wouldn’t be taken seriously as another high-school teen drama bound to be forgotten by its unusual subject matter. On the other hand, British comedy has always had a knack for presenting this sensitive topic with the wit and ironic humour that is required for it to succeed, and the show does borrow from some past inspirations. Surprisingly, it was reminiscent of Channel 4’s cult hit Peep Show; although it’s not quite as hilariously cringe worthy as that, Otis’ unfortunate mishaps and explanations to try and smooth surfaces with his friends – but, on the contrary, making it 10 times worse – has a similar flavour to Mark Corrigan’s mannerisms and failings.
As for most high-school teen dramas, there are a few character tropes which are instantly recognisable from the start: as well as the characters already noted so far, there is Adam (Connor Swindells), the school bully who is unpopular and mostly a loser, and science teacher Mr Hendricks (Horrible Histories and Peep Show’s Jim Howick in fine form) who is always trying to relate and ‘get down with the kids’. There is Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) the charismatic head-boy and swimming champion who is perfect in every manner, and Ruby (Eastender’s Mimi Keane), a popular but selfish girl along with her little gang, to name but a few. However, although some of these tropes are likewise spun on their head, what is most remarkable is the outcome of each one and it leads to some very moving portrayals of teen angst in addition to adulthood.
Maeve might be named ‘cockbiter’ because she gets off with every guy on campus, but in actual fact she lives on her own in a camper van park because of her family’s unfortunate past and has to cope with no support, always grappling with paying rent to joint-owner of the park Jeffrey (Joe Wilkinson), which affects her day-to-day interractions with friends. Otis’s mum Jean might have many one-night-stands with fellow men and is a slight embarrassment to her son, when in contrast she is actually struggling to find love alongside the pressures of her job and is coming to terms with Otis’s growing independence, a realistic situation that plenty of mums can empathise on a personal level. It’s this that pushes the show away from conventions and into something original instead. On this note, all of this would not work without some truly outstanding performances from the whole cast to merit it, and Sex Education thankfully boasts this. Both Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson are perfectly cast and produce some of their most memorable performances in recent memory, whilst Ncuti Gatwa is a revelation as Eric. His storyline is an emotional one but Gatwa plays it with such warmth and energy, you wish by the end that you had a friend like Eric; let’s hope it translates into more roles for him.
Lastly, and most crucially, it’s very funny and, at times, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Otis’s socially inept conversations and his sex therapy sessions are some of the standout comic highlights as he discovers people’s sexual problems from the very simple to the insanely bizarre that I’m sure many viewers are going to find very relatable. There is also a brilliantly curated soundtrack containing hits from the 80s to some recent indie fare which will be great additions to a Spotify library and a playlist of its own accord, and standing at eight episodes that last around 50mins each it’s a perfectly light, bingeable affair.
There is so much to love about Sex Education that it will be a big surprise if a second season is not commissioned anytime soon, but for now this is an exceptional debut season that is destined for success and one that will likely gain word-of-mouth traction over the year. It’s a definite thumbs up rating on Netflix, and I can hardly recommend it enough!
Sex Education is available to stream on Netflix.