Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey lead the cast of the new Netflix series. Photograph from IMDb
Culture Movies

Sex Education goes to cringe-worthy places, but does so with on-point humor

This Netflix series’s greatest strength is its free-wheeling attitude toward sex. It’s also the source of its humor.
Andrew Paredes | Jan 15 2019

Created by Laurie Nunn

Starring Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey

As long as there are hormone-addled adolescents, there will be teen sex comedies; the trick is to not fall into the tired “teen-boys-hoping-to-get-lucky” rut. Fortunately for Sex Education, Netflix’s rather prosaically titled comedy series, a lot of its characters are Gen Z denizens. (News flash: millennials are entering the work force and are just…old.) And Gen Z—as marketing researchers would have us believe—are not as hung up on labels and conventions as previous generations, preferring to define themselves on a spectrum rather than a niche. That free-wheeling attitude toward sex is Sex Education’s greatest strength, and the source of much of its humor.

The X-Files' Gillian Anderson plays Jean Milburn, a sex therapist whos lack of boundaries is the bane of her son Otis's life. Photograph by Sam Taylor/Netflix

That liberal approach is best embodied in Gillian Anderson’s Jean Milburn, a sex therapist whose lack of boundaries is the bane of her son Otis’ (Asa Buttefield) life. Otis is literally painfully shy when it comes to sex—he gets anxious and sweaty at the prospect of masturbation, an affliction which will be explained later in the inaugural season. But being around his mother has made Otis aware of the ins and outs of human psychology, and his knack for coaxing the truth out of people and diagnosing their ills puts him on the radar of his high school’s rebel chick, Maeve (Margot Robbie lookalike Emma Mackey). She needs money to pay the rent at her lower-class housing development, so she unwittingly uses Otis’ hopeless crush on her to recruit him into opening an underground sex therapy practice at their school.

Otis (Butterfield) with his gay best friend Eric played by the standout Ncuti Gatwa. Photograph by Sam Taylor/Netflix

It’s an unlikely premise to build an entire series upon. (Confessing your sexual inadequacies to a peer? Think of the gossip and the humiliation!) And the John Hughes tropes are all present and accounted for. (The awkward social outcast and the rebel chick? Check. The mean girl posse? Check—with a bitchy gay kid thrown in as a bonus. The menacing bully? Check. The adored school jock? Check.) But it all works, thanks to creator Laurie Nunn and her writers’ refusal to turn their characters into clich├ęs. It turns out the rebel chick is actually a brilliant mind, and was the victim of a rumor spread by a rejected boy. The mean girl posse has a member (Aimee Lou Wood) who is champing to define herself both sexually and socially. The bully (Connor Swindells) has a conflicted relationship with his headmaster father (Alistair Petrie), aching to get his approval even as he hates his guts. The jock (Kedar Williams-Stirling) has two moms and is sweet-natured enough not to care if he’s seen around school canoodling with the bad girl. And we haven’t even gotten to the band geek who likes to draw vaguely hentai comics about intergalactic sex slaves and the extraterrestrials who just want to rut them.

They are all indubitably characters of their time—this time—a time when minds and hearts and libidos are shaped by a confluence of social media and social movements like #MeToo. But among a gallery of finely drawn characters, Otis’ gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is a standout. Brashly out and proud, he is nonetheless bullied for sprouting an erection during a school band performance—an unfortunate incident that has earned him the nickname “Tromboner” (“I play the French horn!” Eric lamely insists.)—and a lot of the bullying is perpetrated by the school’s other gay kid (Chaneil Kular). But just because Eric feels free enough to wear a Hedwig and the Angry Inch ensemble to a movie date, doesn’t mean he won’t have to negotiate his way through life’s booby traps and bargain with society to find a hard-won sense of identity. Eric’s journey is one of the first season’s most compelling storylines.

Otis with the series bully played by Connor Swindells. Photograph from IMDb

And what of Otis and his no-boundaries mom? It’s gratifying to see a parent-child relationship that elevates itself above the easy “stop embarrassing me” trope. Thanks to the writers’ firm grasp of what makes their characters tick, it turns out the older, wiser mom doesn’t have everything figured out, and the perpetually mortified son has wisdom to share. Both Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield are at their loosest, both displaying some welcome comic timing. (It also turns out 11 seasons on The X-Files comes in handy for spouting psychological jargon convincingly.)

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Perhaps inevitably, the plot does fall into some expected teen-movie beats as it reaches the home stretch, if only to set up some delicious cliffhangers for the season finale. Like its Netflix brother-in-ribaldry Big Mouth, Sex Education goes to some really cringe-worthy places, but it takes you there with a sweet, good-natured nudge to the ribs. Here’s hoping the streaming giant harbors no performance anxiety for a second go-round.