The uncomfortable brilliance of Sex Education

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Famously, we Brits don’t like to have awkward or uncomfortable conversations. Anything that would make an elderly lady gasp with fright is generally a no-go when we talk to one another. What we do like to do, however, is write comedy shows about all the stuff that we don’t like to talk about.

Netflix’s new show Sex Education is the latest entry in this long lineage. Created by Laurie Nunn, the eight episode run follows the exploits of a crew of high schoolers, discovering themselves in one of the most confusing periods of their lives. That sounds pretty familiar at first, but here’s the kicker: the main character’s mum is a sex therapist. That’s one of the many things that separate Sex Education from other shows of its ilk, another being an incredible diversity of stories on offer. There’s Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), one of only two gay men in the school who is hiding a love of makeup from his parents. There’s also the school bully Adam, (Connor Swindells), who is struggling with impotence, his overbearing father (the school’s headmaster) and rumours about the size of his package.

As the name implies, sex features pretty heavily in all of these stories. It’s shameless, it’s ballsy (quite literally) and, most importantly, it’s open about all of these things in ways a lot of shows aren’t. It can be used for laughs, but never for typical cringe comedy: it’s a little smarter in its execution and its sincerity makes it incredibly enjoyable. It also avoids the pitfalls of a typical high school comedy quite cleverly. All the cliques and the fake people and the social hang-ups are there but they’re… complicated. Everyone is a full character in this show, even if they put on a shallow persona at school. The popular group exists and they’re great fun: they wear being vegan like a badge that makes them cool and clearly have no idea what being vegan actually entails. But they’re not as untouchable or elusive as in other shows. One girl flips between hanging out with them and with Meave (Emma Mackey), the social outcast; but even she hooks up with the most popular kid in the school in the first episode. No one is boiled down to stereotypes and everyone gets enough time to be a proper character.

There’s a lot to love about this show. The dialogue is snappy and witty, its cinematography and use of colour is as stylish as it is clever. It also has a fantastic soundtrack (I wish kids these days listened to as many 80s classics as are in this show). But most importantly, it has a heart that you might not expect it to have: behind all the jokes and crude humour is an earnestness that makes these people not just real or interesting but likeable. You invest yourself in these young, unaware idiots because you want to see them thrive. It gives you a reason to care and sympathize with them. That it’s so open and sincere about sexuality is a big part of how that works; it starts from a place of vulnerability and then invites the viewer into that private circle.

That’s not to mention the incredible cast this show has. Main character Otis is played brilliantly by Asa Butterfield: awkward, shy and just a little bit manic, but with plenty of moments to really come out of his shell. His mother, the aforementioned sex therapist, is played perfectly by none other than Gillian Anderson, who truly deserves to be the uncontested queen of television. She’s a combination of the hippy qualities of Friends’ Phoebe with the confidence and sureheaded-ness of Monica, but much better than either. She’s brilliant and she’s more than just a secret weapon, she’s a big part of the story.

It’s not hard to find things to like about Sex Education: what’s much harder is singling out the one detail that really makes it click. This is something special: this feels like it perfectly understands the people it’s about and wants to talk to them rather than laugh at them with people who are a little older. This level of empathy and genuine understanding doesn’t really exist in many texts, even the ones that claim to do so. Sex Education feels like a John Green novel that really knows what it’s doing. It’s open, honest, fun and one of the best things Netflix has to offer right now.

 

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