There’s a reason they’re all glued to their phones and don’t wish to be disturbed. It has to do with privacy, deeply personal questions and an entire gamut of emotions waiting to be discovered — or binge-watched, as the case may be. Even with certain controls in place, one wonders if parents get a say anymore in what their kids are streaming.
But I didn’t come here to play Church Lady. I’m here, as always, to review an adult TV show that seems primarily aimed at the youth market — and I’m rather taken with “Sex Education’s” honest approach to the awkwardness, ookiness and general inevitability of teen sex.
The eight-episode series (which premiered Friday) is set in some bucolic, hilly suburb (filmed in Wales), in a high school that departs so wildly from the usual, Hogwarts-style assumptions about the U.K. educational experience that it might as well be named the John Hughes Memorial American-Style High School, where bells ring, lockers slam and the soundtrack is implausibly stuck on ’80s new-wave hits, still, in 2019.
Much like Greg Berlanti’s 2018 movie “Love, Simon” seemed to meld together an idealized then with a socially progressive, tech-savvy now, “Sex Education” (created by British playwright Laurie Nunn) exists in a permanent, vividly colored state of homage, as if seeming to ask: What if Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and the gang were so completely free to act on their most carnal desires that they wound up needing a sex therapist who was their own age? Clearly envious of old sounds and feelings, this show makes “Porky’s” look like a Victorian-era farce, along with a curious bit of cultural cross-wiring: “Sex Education” is fixated on American rituals of high school, while viewers here might be left envying the uninhibited misadventures of this appreciably diverse array of teenagers.
Asa Butterfield stars as 16-year-old Otis, your average nice-boy nerd (and virgin) with a peculiar distaste for anything having to do with sex, thanks to the success his now-divorced parents found when they co-wrote a best-selling book on intimacy. Living with his extremely open-minded, you-can-tell-me-anything mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), Otis instead chooses retreat. He’s so self-conscious about sex that he won’t even allow himself to masturbate, which is a real affliction in a show where the act is celebrated as the surest way to know oneself and conquer social anxieties.
Through a series of humiliating events, Otis accepts the offer of the school’s rebellious beauty, Maeve (Emma Mackey), to start up an ad hoc therapy practice, where students of all stripes begin paying money for Otis’s insightful advice, which he’s gleaned from a lifetime of living with his mother’s sex-positive, you-do-you outlook. Anderson is an absolute hoot as Otis’s mother — barging in on his anxieties and causing him to have new worries.
Despite his hang-ups, Otis has a mature head on his shoulders, and his advice to his peers — who come to him with Dan Savage-level questions about orgasms, anatomy and kinks — is always humane and generally spot-on. Admirable attention is paid to supporting characters (especially Ncuti Gatwa’s performance as Eric, Otis’s best friend), breaking stereotypes that still endure in other high school comedies.
The sex these kids are having isn’t entirely consequence-free, either. A sexting incident involving a picture of a vagina leads to a rather funny but impressive “I am Spartacus” show of feminine solidarity at a school assembly; there’s also an interesting treatment on the subject of abortion, told not from inside the clinic, but outside, among the righteous protesters.
As well as any or all of this might be handled, there’s the usual problem of Netflix drift for an episode or two midway through, where the plot dawdles while the writers and producers figure out an ending. Yet there’s an artfulness to the material and a genuine care on display here, too — a message that we are not just about the size and shape and inventive uses of our private parts.
If “Sex Education” were playing in American movie theaters, it would easily get an R rating and a sharp scolding from family-values watchdogs, which once again leaves a critic wondering how (or if) Netflix decides who the intended audience is for this sort of content. Though it will certainly prove too provocative for some parents, I can think of far, far worse things to discover on your teenager’s laptop.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to Gillian Anderson’s character as Jill. The character’s name is Jean. This story has been updated with the correct name.
Sex Education (eight episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.