It’s fitting that a show all about scaling the greasy slopes of teenage sexuality should start off a bit awkward and over-keen, then get a lot more fun when it calms down a bit. From unpromising beginnings, Sex Education grows into one of the best original programmes Netflix has made.
Over the past decade or so, probably starting with Skins, shows dealing with teenagers and sex have been getting gradually less uptight. The finger wagging and moralising (you’ll get pregnant or covered in diseases!) started to disappear until we’ve arrived at this point, where a show can frankly discuss sex but also make jokes about it, like normal people do. Sex Education centres on Otis (Asa Butterfield) whose mother (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist. Otis is so sex-averse that he doesn’t even masturbate but he has grown up around so much frank sex discussion that he theoretically understands all the psychology behind it. So, largely by accident, he becomes secret sex therapist to his school’s population. The virgin sex guru.
The show deals with a spectrum of sexualities and different experiences within those sexualities, eg gay characters are out to different degrees and some are happy, some are not. Abortion, consent, revenge porn, body image are all covered in ways that treat the matter seriously but with excellent jokes. What makes it work so well is that the kids, while smart, sound like kids, not like adult voices put into the mouths of teenagers. They say dumb stuff. They don’t have everything figured out, but they know more than they’re given credit for. Across the board, even to the smallest role, they’re played by a superb cast. Stand-out among stand-outs is Ncuti Gatwa as Otis’ best friend, who is gay. He’s not struggling with his sexuality but with getting anybody to notice him. He’s one of only two out gay boys in the school and the other thinks he’s a loser. Gatwa’s charisma and vulnerability make the sidekick role almost the starring role.
As good as its content is, the presentation starts out a little odd. There’s a peculiar style to the show in the beginning, which dissipates a bit as it goes on, or at least becomes less notable. For some reason it wants to look like a British and an American high-school show from every decade from the 1970s to now. The houses are filled with ’70s pattern and technology. Kids wear letterman jackets or dress like extras from Heathers or Clueless. Yet it’s set now. It’s a stylistic preciousness the show doesn’t need, because its characters and writing are so damn good.
That little bit of needless gimmickry is its only significant flaw, though, and certainly doesn’t spoil the show. It might be about teens but this will be entertaining to everybody.