Hey folks! I have just binged SEX EDUCATION, and I'm pleased to recommend it. While I will try to minimize spoilers, there are a few points I will need to spoil to make, so if you are already on board with my recommendation, just head to Netflix now, and see it before I potentially ruin something great for you.
This is not a smutty show, but it opens with a sex scene and the sex talk and depictions are both frank and realistic. So if you're a prude, you are going to have an awful time and probably should be A) re-evaluating why you watched a show called SEX EDUCATION and B) reconsider procreating until you have some actual Sex Education. Nothing here was terribly graphic, or remotely scatological.
I think SEX EDUCATION will be particularly poignant to folks of my generation who grew up with the John Hughes films of the 80's (SIXTEEN CANDLES, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and PRETTY IN PINK), where sex, popularity, social class, and the angst of unrequited love, or of really unfortunate timing in love, rules the day. It also talks very frankly about sex without trying to make all of it a turn-on.
Like a sex-help video, instead of being a pornographic fantasy of how pleasure is, SEX EDUCATION deals in the reality. The show concentrates on the pitfalls and the humanity of people trying to make their sexuality work for them, and frustrated by the external factors that weigh on their lives and their relationships. It looks at Hughes-like scenarios through a lens of modern British humor with grace and charm and gravitas.
Laurie Nunn's series focuses mostly on Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the sexually-repressed son of a prominent sex therapist, Dr. Jean F. Milburn (Gillian Anderson). Our early introduction to their awkward relationship is one of Dr. Jean's one-night stands opening Otis' door on the search for a bathroom.
Otis is embarrassed by the lack of boundary between his mother's life and his own. As we get to know Otis, we discover he is a virgin at sixteen and cannot even bring himself to masturbate, let alone approach sex with someone else. We discover his crush after an accidental crash into Maeve (Emma Mackey), the brainy, intellectual, and attractive girl with an unfair reputation for being easy, who is currently having a secret fling with Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), the Head Boy and swimming champion.
On Eric's first day of term, we get to meet the people in the academy he attends... Otis' best friend is the openly-gay Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Eric is struggling with his father's lack of acceptance and is bullied at school by Adam Groff, the headmaster's bad-boy son, and snubbed by Anwar, the only other openly gay person in his year. Flanked by Aimee and Olivia, the two most popular Mean Girls at the academy, and Adam's girlfriend Aimee, their clique rules the school with utter disdain for anyone they consider below themselves.
Adam and Aimee are having difficulty in their sex life, and in an attempt to get control of the situation, Adam takes a dangerous dose of Viagra, and then sends out a video of Dr. Jean instructing on how to masturbate a penis whilst calling out Otis to humiliate him. Maeve and Otis happen upon Adam suffering from a painful erection, and Otis talks him down from the danger. After seeing Otis in action dealing with Adam, the cash-strapped Maeve works out a plan to offer discreet sex therapy to their fellow students at a price.
Dr. Jean gets a lot of her own story... it seems she has tremendous difficulty extricating herself from her son's life. As we learn the details of her marriage and divorce to Otis' dad (played with perfect slimy charm by James Purefoy), her difficulties become obvious, as the events that keep Otis repressed also kept her unable to trust men to more than a one-off sexual fling. Things get complicated for Dr. Jean, however, when she meets Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt ), the plumber, and gets to know him beyond her attraction... and risks her relationship with Otis to continue seeing him. She also begins farming Otis' sexual dysfunction for a book of her own. I can't begin to tell you how good Gillian Anderson is here. She seems to be channeling Finola Hughes as Petunia Dursley crossed with an addict. As flawed a mother as Dr. Jean comes off, you still root for her to have some success and happiness.
Complicating Otis and Maeve's enterprise is the fact that he is becoming more and more enchanted by her... and Jackson uses Otis' cottage industry to work out details of how to win Maeve over as more than just a casual fling. An at first pressured, reluctant Otis turns into Otis the saboteur, which hilariously backfires on him. And this new enterprise takes its toll on Otis and Eric's friendship, as helping Maeve leads to letting down Eric to the point of a dangerous crisis.
Now, look... this show is not an M. Night Shyamalan joint; there is no surprise twist. You can tell about midway through episode 1 how two seasons of this show work out because it paints the picture in long, recognizable story beats-- which to my mind are subverted Hughes beats, and very GOOD beats.
If you follow through, you get a wonderful story that takes the John Hughes films of the eighties and looks at them through the lens of contemporary understanding and fearless acceptance of what makes these kids different from each other. The same urges, panics, anxieties, pressures. and damages are there, but the camera doesn't hate these kids-- not even the mean ones.
Imagine if you will if the Joan Cusack character in SIXTEEN CANDLES got her own character arc about her awkward search for love in a neck brace, and you get the idea. Or in PRETTY IN PINK, if Benny, James Spader's hateful girlfriend, had a moment of growth that didn't completely alter her character, but at least grew her just a little and recognize the humanity in Andi. Imagine if The Breakfast Club actually went back to school and dealt with their own cliques rejecting and ragging on the people they bonded with. That's the brilliance in SEX EDUCATION.
The cast is phenomenal. Asa Butterfield carries the majority of the show and he's both a great protagonist without being a leading-man type wearing Buddy Holly glasses to suggest why others find him undateable, ala Rachel Leigh Cook in SHE'S ALL THAT. He's very sympathetic at his weakest moment.
And while Otis is the show's focus, Maeve is just as important. I read somewhere that Emma Mackey was being compared to a young Margot Robbie in her appearance, and I think that's an excellent comparison... but I like Mackey's acting even more than Robbie's. Which I would put down to the fact that I've never seen Robbie in a television series, and in this one. Mackey gets hours to tell you who Maeve is in gestures gross and subtle, and in the end, I'm completely on her team. She has a moment of clarity at a school dance that could break even the coldest of hearts.
Gillian Anderson is hilarious and perfect as Jean, Otis' interfering mother. Watching her struggle with the desire to intervene helpfully in Otis' life is wonderful. Like a man (okay, like ME in my own masculinity), Dr. Jean is a needy fixer can't help but try to fix the things she sees as wrong and cocks up everything in the process, as opposed to just giving the problems space and time.
Ncuti Gatwa is extraordinary as Eric. His journey is the most complicated, and he rises believably and yet heroically to the events. He doesn't lose all fear when he stands up to his bully-- but he manages fear, and in doing so, frustrates his bully. Gatwa plays a camp character with dignity, and as an kid who used to act, all I have to say is, YOU try that if you think it's easy to do.
I am shocked at how well Nunn deals with sexuality and masculinity in a black British family. It's not light lifting, here-- these are things that can die in cliché or preachiness, but Nunn handles this story with an elegance that feels specific to the highest standards of British television and storytelling.
There's an abortion in the course of events, and I'm pleased to say that it's handled with the same frankness and honesty as the sexuality is. We don't get into the morality too much, other than a couple outside the hospital arguing pro-life, who Otis helps to reconnect out of kindness. (And if you think unmarried, living alone and barely scraping-by young woman should be forced to have a child in the Brexit-ing United Kingdom, I'm sorry, but you're really not grasping anything beyond your own trousers.)
It's also one of the most beautiful scenes in the first season, and the use of The Smith's "Asleep" (as well as in the score after on Maeve's walk home) is note-perfect. Most of the score is simple, utility work, but the soundtrack is something exceptional. There was so much eighties music I had to double-check to see what period the story is set in (modern).
Season one's plot comes to a head at the school dance. After Maeve and Jackson become a couple, Otis has a meet-cute with Ola, Jakob the Plumber's beautiful daughter, and after she transfers to the academy, Otis asks her to the school dance and the two of them go... and the night is filled with tensions as about a dozen plot points collide. Maeve sabotages Otis' relationship with Ola, Otis tries to save a drug-fueled, needy, 'grand gesture' student from suicide, Otis' intervention awakens understanding in Maeve and Jackson, Jackson spills the beans about Otis meddling in their relationship, and the Headmaster finds drugs on the suicidal student, implicating Maeve and Otis.
The resolutions that come after are earned and beautiful, both in what begins and what ends. It honestly left me wishing that there was more, an entire season I could just begin and carry on, the way I did when I was late to the party with THE EXPANSE.
Otis doesn't end the season as the clear winner and a hero. He doesn't inherit the world/get the girl/become Head Boy in the end. But he does get a handle on one of the issues holding him back, comes to good terms with his mother, and finds equilibrium with all the people he has wronged in his story. I can't wait to see what happens next with Otis, Maeve, Eric, Ola, Jackson, Adam, and of course. Dr. Jean.
In the world John Hughes examined in the eighties, you couldn't really break out of what the world expected of you; you just had to be the inner rebel until you ran things, and hope you didn't become just like your parents as you grow old. In Nunn's examination of today's world, it's more a matter of whether or not you'll demand better for yourself and demand the respect you rightfully deserve today, by being someone worthy of respect. The characters in SEX EDUCATION don't all achieve this... but it's beautiful to watch them try.
-- Precious Roy
Don't forget to check out my brother Matt's podcast!
Video CULTure podcast
Episode 003 - (featuring 1991 Bruce Willis films) is available now at:
Episode 004 - "When comedic actors get serious" (featuring CONTINENTAL DIVIDE & THE RAZOR'S EDGE)
Coming January 15th!