Following in the footsteps of shows like Big Mouth and Chewing Gum, Sex Education explores sex and the lack of knowledge that so many young people have on the subject. The series’ protagonist, Otis (Asa Butterfield), is a sexually-repressed teenager whose sex therapist single mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) doesn’t shy from embarrassing conversations. Otis grew up surrounded by manuals, videos and inappropriately-open conversations about sex, creating a home environment that no doubt contributed to his fear of intimacy. Now a reluctant expert on the subject—despite being a virgin—Otis teams up with the school’s resident bad girl, Maeve (Emma Mackey), and the two go into business together, setting up an underground sex therapy clinic to help their equally-inexperienced classmates.
Unlike Otis, Maeve lacks parental guidance, and her complicated home life means that she is constantly working to keep her world from falling apart. As Maeve, Mackey is a pink-haired, leather jacket-wearing young woman who does as she pleases. Unlike so many of her peers, Maeve isn’t preoccupied with social pressure or academic expectations. Instead, she struggles to make rent and takes the fall for her brother’s drug deals gone awry—secrets she keeps to herself for most of the season. Otis’ sheltered life breeds an entirely different set of hardships, and his complicated relationship with his overbearing mother inflicts sexual neuroses and an insatiable desire for perfection.
Despite their respective imperfections, when the two join forces, their combined strengths lead to successful business endeavours. What begins as a professional relationship quickly blossoms into an unlikely friendship. Maeve and Otis challenge one another and encourage growth, and the result is a heartwarming friendship and a charming storyline.
While the show is powerful in its honest portrayal of sexual confusion, it lacks authenticity in other regards. Like many most shows set in high school, Sex Education’s teens are played by adult actors. Butterfeld and Mackey, in addition to many of their cast-mates, are all in their 20s, but were cast to play 16-18 year olds. The show contributes to the long-standing tradition of using adult actors to portray teenagers. In addition to visually misrepresenting young people, Sex Education ascribes age-inappropriate behaviour to young teens more likely to be seen in a college environment, such as casual sex and drug use. The result is a dramatized depiction of high school that misconstrues the lived experiences of actual high schoolers.
Despite its faults, the show navigates its complicated subject matter with humour and sensitivity. The characters are flawed but sympathetic, the storylines familiar but clever, both elements working together to depict the trials and tribulations of growing up in an age of hyper-sexualization.
Sex Education is an easily-digestible yet worthwhile dramedy, and the show is surprisingly substantial for a Netflix original comedy. The series explores themes of self-confidence and empathy all crammed into an eight-episode lark. While the storyline has the potential to fall victim to cliché high school show plots, Sex Education surprises with refreshing twists.