Sabastian Astley reviews the new Netflix coming of age series on teenage sexuality.
Netflix’s Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, provides something many shows revolving around adolescence lack: an openness and honesty toward the sexual lives of teenagers. Between the diverse cast of characters and the pressing storylines introduced, the show certainly seems to be on its way towards teenage acclaim. But how well does it reflect the teenage zeitgeist of the modern day?
The show’s narrative threads are constructed around the overarching plot of the nerdy Otis’ (Asa Butterfield) unlikely team-up with outcast Maeve (Emma Mackley) to run an underground a sex therapy clinic at their school, all with the help of Otis’ sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson). We also follow the origin of Adam’s (Connor Swindells) bullying behaviour; Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) struggle to embrace his sexuality despite his religious family; Maeve’s difficulty supporting and creating a future for herself; and Jean’s difficulty of raising her son while maintaining her own identity.
Sex Education explores various themes that affect the modern teen, most notably sexual identity, societal pressures, sexual health, and relationships. Eric and Adam’s relationship to one another showcases the complications of exploring one’s sexual identity; Adam’s sexual repression is subtly displayed through his behaviours and the way in which he treats Eric as opposed to the language he uses towards him. Societal pressures are explored through every character in the show, from Maeve’s attempts to balance her academic and home lives, to Jackson’s anxiety over the pressure his mother puts on him to swim competitively. This may be the most general of the themes throughout the entire show, but each individual character’s struggle with societal pressure feels unique. Viewers can identify and empathise with an individual character due to the broad exploration of this theme.
The issue of sexual health is explored through the sex therapy clinic’s day-to-day, including discussions of the importance of communication during sex and of asserting one’s individual preferences rather than acting according to their partner’s desires. Although the show is comedic in tone, these issues themselves are never trivialised. They are properly explored through sincere discussion with realistic resolutions that don’t feel oversimplified.
Relationships become the most complex of the themes explored, mostly revolving around the characters’ connections to their families. Maeve has a troubled relationship with her brother; Otis’ struggles to communicate with his mother about his own issues; Adam acts out as a cry for help to his parents; and Eric is disconnected from his father. The show approaches these topics with a sense of realism, and each situation plays out naturally; people let others down, and simple words exchanged can be devastating. When you watch these relationships in play, you feel a sense of familiarity, because these problems are universal and impossibly difficult to solve. Many of the relationship issues portrayed aren’t resolved. The show is sincere in its sadness, and its refusal to allow everything an ending hits incredibly close to home.
Every relationship between characters seems genuine: Butterfield and Anderson have fantastic chemistry as Jean and Otis, striking the balance between embarrassing parent and angsty teen while retaining a strong sense of parental guidance. Gatwa and Swindells portray a believable attraction between Eric and Adam, playing their characters beyond the stereotypical masculine man threatened by his own desires and the repressed, flamboyant gay man. However, Mackley gives the standout performance of the series; as Maeve, she displays a muted emotional palette to showcase the character’s difficulty in distancing herself from reality. In terms of aesthetic, the show’s timeless setting gives it a distinctive style that complements the its universality and helps to add some levity to more serious moments. The strong John Hughes influence is clear from the Americanised school setting, though the mostly ’80s soundtrack is peppered with some exceptional Ezra Furman tracks for a modern balance.
The show is not perfect of course; there are times where it suffers from generic plot points, such as the ‘will they, won’t they’ tension between Otis and Maeve. While this has been replicated many times throughout television history, such as in FRIENDS‘s iconic Ross and Rachel drama, it does allow both characters to develop individually. We see this in Maeve’s relationship to Jackson (Kedar Williams-Sterling) and in Otis’ exploration with Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and relationship with Ola (Patricia Allison). Additionally, some issues are presented briefly but lack further development beyond a mention, such as Otis’ difficulty with masturbation originating from a specific childhood memory – an exploration which only took five minutes at most.
Sex Education explores the teenage zeitgeist in a way that is unique and refreshing to see, with an incredibly sad underlying tone once the narratives of each character are deconstructed. It’s very reminiscent of the successful, early-2000s teen drama Skins in that both series use daydream-like narratives as a device to deconstruct and develop each individual character as they face their own personal struggles in their sexuality or familial relationships.
Sex Education is available to stream on Netflix now. Check out the trailer below: