Sex can be thrilling, horrifying, terribly awkward and wonderfully adventurous. It can be life-changing, terrifying, boring. No matter your experience level, the idea of having it can loom large as a promise, or a threat. But for a teenager, these truths aren’t all that helpful when it literally comes down to it. Sometimes, all you want or need to know is how to actually do the damn thing in a way that leaves everyone involved with their dignity intact.
The granular mechanics of sex have fueled teen comedies for decades, and so, too, does it propel “Sex Education.” Laurie Nunn’s new dramedy so thoroughly embraces American high school tropes of the ’80s — from virgin nerds to jocks in letterman jackets, chain-smoking rebels to mean girls in Technicolor “Heathers” blazers — that it can be genuinely jarring to see someone pull out an iPhone.
But the series also uses sex and the various neuroses constantly surrounding it as a compassionate framing device, rooting characters in their experiences (or lack thereof) with empathy, jokes and probably most important, patience. What the show correctly supposes is that having or not having sex is only the tip of the iceberg for kids just starting to figure out what they want and like. Outside the technicalities, there’s sexuality and compatibility. There’s figuring out what you need and learning how to speak up for it. There’s discerning the difference between perfunctory sex and genuine pleasure. There’s so much more than the vast majority of those teen comedies ever truly touch, and so it’s wonderfully refreshing to watch “Sex Education” address these more specific questions on-screen with such care and humor.
The series immediately makes that mission explicit by introducing Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) and her 16-year-old son, Otis (Asa Butterfield). Jean is a headstrong mother and practicing sex therapist, and tends to blur the lines between the two enough that Otis often becomes a reluctant case study. This proves especially awkward given that Otis isn’t comfortable with even the idea of masturbating, let alone having sex. But the scripts and actors are sharp enough that their relationship is never just that of an overbearing mother and her annoyed son, a tired dynamic we’ve seen a million times before. Even when Otis and Jean are baffled by each other, it’s understood that they love each other — not to mention that Anderson, displaying solid comic timing with Jean’s clipped line delivery, seems to be having a great time doing comedy for a change.
Despite Otis’ discomfort with his mother’s (pre)occupation, he’s nonetheless picked up some decent knowledge on how to help people navigate tricky sexual situations. One series of comic misunderstandings later, Otis realizes that he doesn’t necessarily need to have had sex to help his classmates communicate better in general. And so he starts an underground sex therapy business with the help of Maeve (Emma Mackey), the sullen but secretly brilliant outcast whom he quickly falls for. (Again: “Sex Education” never met a teen trope it didn’t love.) Though he rarely feels more than adequate himself, Otis discovers that he has a knack for counseling people, mostly because he’s willing to give them space and hear them out.
Perhaps the best storyline of “Sex Education,” however, belongs to Otis’ best friend. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is a funny, enthusiastic, ambitious, openly gay teen. Much to his frustration, that combination of traits has made him both an outlier and an object of curiosity in their town. His protective father doesn’t understand him; the only other out gay in school is embarrassed by him; even Otis sometimes takes his determined ebullience for granted.
In Eric’s case, “Sex Education” moves past the teen show staple of a coming-out story to explore what happens next. Over the course of the first season, Eric grapples with finding his place in the world, the temptation to compromise and the feeling that his natural flamboyance has made small-minded people write him off as a joke. Gatwa is a clear and immediate standout, and with the exception of a disappointingly clichéd choice in the season finale, “Sex Education” finds original ways to explore the story of a character many other series have written off as comic relief. It’s the kind of instinct that, should the show return for a second season, could make it an essential entry in the genre it loves so much.
Premieres Friday, January 11 on Netflix.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Kedar Williams-Stirling Aimee-Lou Wood, Connor Swindells.
Crew: Executive producers: Laurie Nunn, Jamie Campbell, Sian Robins-Grace.