2019 has barely begun, but a contender for the year’s best show about sex and love has already emerged.
In spite of its too-clever-by-half title and under the guise of a raunchy premise, Netflix’s Sex Education — the tale of a dorky teenage boy named Otis and his sex-positive, overenthusiastic sex therapist mom — has executed a thoughtful and charming debut season. A lot of that is due to star Gillian Anderson’s bombastic performance as the aforementioned unapologetically sex-positive mom.
But what sets Sex Education apart from other shows that concern themselves with adolescence, sex, and love is its tenderness. Instead of perpetually treating the sex lives of teens as a childish joke, the show’s directors, Kate Herron and Ben Taylor, tend to them with kindness.
That isn’t to say that Sex Education somehow avoids silliness or gross-out humor, because there are at least two instances of handjob pantomimes and a fellatio-related vomit anecdote in the first couple of episodes alone.
But there’s no sneering at teenage ideas of lust or love, or at feeling rejected or insecure. Nor is it cruel. Sex Education takes all those emotions seriously and doesn’t discount them just because they happen in the brains, loins, and hearts of 17-year-olds. And in doing so, the show becomes something familiar, sweet, and relatable — even if your teenage years are decades in the past.
On paper, the humor of Sex Education isn’t that far-fetched. Otis Thompson (Asa Butterfield) is the son of a sex therapist (Anderson) who really has no boundaries when it comes to talking about masturbation, vaginas, penises, performance anxiety, sex, drugs, and everything in between. Within that narrative frame, you might expect the show to hit the familiar cringe beats of uncomfortable “birds and bees” talks and the dark horror of knowing your parent or parents are having sex for enjoyment. And it certainly does, at times.
Anderson is seemingly having the time of her life playing a platinum-haired, no-holds-barred sex therapist. She gets to say dastardly things like “man milk” and is described by one of Sex Education’s other characters as a “sexy witch.” How many takes Butterfield might have required to not burst into laughter at Agent Scully chattering about “man milk” is a mystery we may never know, but he’s equally charming — albeit in a stiffer, more vulnerable way.
But Sex Education doesn’t linger long in that mode, as it soon steers away from mother-son awkwardness into something more earnest. Because while being the son of a sex therapist has thrown a curve into Otis’s sexual development — thinking about one of your parents every time you masturbate or have sex can do that to a person — Otis has actually listened to everything his mom has had to say about sex and intimacy. So he becomes his school’s sex shrink, for better or worse.
Otis is someone his peers can talk to when they can’t go to their parents. This leads into a different kind of comedy about the fear of sex, yes, but also about the anxiety of relationships and self-worth. In one episode, for example, he asks one of his “clients” to explore their insecurities about their body and where they come from.
And this unique relationship with his fellow high school students reveals all the things he can’t say to his own mother. He can’t exactly tell her that he wants to find a romantic relationship deeper than her various one-night stands, nor can she ever know that her endearing effort to be sex-positive has actually had a negative effect on Otis’s sexual development.
Pop culture has given us plenty of stories about how zany sex-crazed teenagers can be, but Sex Education is one of the rare works that go beyond that trope to give depth and validation to teenage insecurities and emotions that coexist with raging hormones and mythic sex drives.
In telling stories about teenage sex anxieties, Sex Education is cleverly relatable. Teens are supposed to be silly and clumsy about life, since they’re experiencing everything adult — freedom, love, heartbreak, shattering disappointment, core-shaking joy — for the first time. Sex Education understands that for humans, and young humans especially, a lot of these experiences are rooted in sex and romance.
Being rejected by someone you find desirable hurts in a special kind of way. Embarrassing yourself in front of someone you want to impress burns differently than more run-of-the-mill public shame. A relationship becomes different once sex enters the equation.
The genius of Sex Education is that it knows the biggest difference between adults and teens is that adults are a lot more aware of their own unavoidable silly clumsiness. And whether you’re watching as a teen or an adult, laughing at teens being thrown into fraught romantic and anxiety-inducing situations is a way (an easier way, perhaps?) for us to also laugh at ourselves.
The first season of Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.