A show like Sex Education could never get made in America. A portrait of the sex lives of teenagers that’s both graphically detailed and earnestly empathetic? We’re far too puritanical, too shame-bound, too easily titillated for such a delicate balancing act to stand a chance. Thank goodness, then, that one side effect of the global reach of certain streaming services is to render the distinction between U.S. and international TV moot. Netflix’s latest drama is set in the United Kingdom, but its winning combination of emotion and candor is available to all.
The vast majority of American teen television treats adolescent sexuality as a matter of either/or: Either teens are having sex or they’re not, and if there’s anything to explore beyond that binary, you’d never know it from what you saw on your screen. Sex Education, refreshingly, is interested in far more than just the “what” of its central subject. There’s also the how, when, where, and why—and once Sex Education starts peeling back those layers, it wastes no time in making the most of this untapped potential.
The brainchild of playwright Laurie Nunn, Sex Education finds a cheekily specific hook: Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is the child of a single mother and sex therapist, Jean (Gillian Anderson, perfectly cast as a parent self-evidently cooler than their own offspring). Contrary to the stereotype of a 16-year-old boy, Otis finds himself unable to masturbate, repelled by his own touch, and eventually others’, to the point of nausea. Despite this dysfunction, Otis has absorbed enough wisdom by osmosis to help others’ problems, if not his own. Through a series of perfunctory plot contortions, Otis partners with the shrewd, prickly Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) to set up a for-profit clinic of sorts for the confused, hapless pupils of Moordale Secondary.
Once its foundation is in place, Sex Education launches into a sociological survey that puts Kinsey to shame. A bully is tired of his, um, endowment being the talk of the school. A lesbian couple in their first serious relationship can’t figure out what’s missing from their sex life. A popular golden boy needs help asking out the one girl who won’t faint at his touch. A gay guy confesses he’s “terrified of buttholes.” A queen bee is terrified her nudes might be used as revenge porn. With their letterman jackets and clearly defined cliques, the Moordale students hew closely to archetypes straight out of a John Hughes movie; a pivotal, late-season scene even hinges on polar opposites trapped in detention together, Breakfast Club–style. (Nunn has said she intentionally scrambled British and American teen tropes to yield a stylized hybrid.) But did Hughes ever show a teen girl’s epiphany via crumpet-fueled self-pleasuring session? Or, to cite a more recent example: Did Gossip Girl ever delve into the details of Dan and Serena’s physical relationship after that one delightfully cheesy winter wonderland scene?
As the Hughesian influence—and a soundtrack featuring such throwbacks as the Talking Heads and the Cure — may indicate, Sex Education is less for real-life teens than about them; any younger fans who stumble upon it on their way to 13 Reasons Why are an added bonus. The show has this in common with Netflix peer and only true stateside counterpart, Big Mouth, Nick Kroll’s filthy-sweet animated romp through the indignities of puberty. But where Big Mouth documents the very earliest shifts in tweenagers’ hormonal tides with a voice cast of full-grown adults, Sex Education moves the timeline forward a few years. These characters are stranded between the start of their sex lives and point when experience, rather than the internet or peer pressure, can serve as their guide. Aiding the emotional realism is that Sex Education’s actors actually look like teens, rather than cartoon exaggerations of them. (Butterfield is 21 and Mackey is 23.) Not that Sex Education is entirely realistic. In its portrait of teen life as an exciting minefield of parentless parties and other people’s body parts rather than stultifying boredom, Sex Education instills the same sense of inadequacy as its other closest analog, the mid-aughts sensation Skins. The two series even share a writer.
But Sex Education is very much a product of its time, with all the diversity and open-mindedness a show made years after sex positivity hit the mainstream would demand. The credo of both Otis’s bootleg therapy practice, run out of confession-booth-like stalls in an abandoned bathroom, and the show it anchors is a resolute commitment to keeping an open mind. The jock and the delinquent are both afforded nuance, of course, revealing the pressure-cooked perfectionist and wounded soul beneath. That’s standard stuff, though. More novel is the way a tentacle porn enthusiast’s desires are taken entirely seriously, as are the concerns of an out gay teen’s conservative parents, portrayed less as straightforwardly bigoted than understandably worried for their son. Even the jock is the product of an interracial lesbian marriage, an encouraging demonstration that Sex Education can treat some forms of difference as fuel for story and others as a fact of life. There are plenty of laughs here, but the audience is never asked to laugh at the characters, even the ones who would, on a lesser show, be confined to the role of sidekick or de facto punching bag.
In eight 50-minute episodes, Sex Education doesn’t entirely avoid cliché. Otis’s hangups get a disappointing explanation and pat resolution; a central love triangle is as predictable as it is unnecessary. But the show also adds something new to its otherwise familiar component parts. By being unafraid to get its hands dirty and work blue, Sex Education reveals there’s nothing to be afraid of in the first place. Contrary to what most media would have you believe, there’s an infinite middle ground between virginity and sexual savvy. Time to break out the magnifying glass.