“Sex Education indulges our yearning for the past while allowing us to see it through a more forward-looking lens.”
Title: Sex Education
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Laurie Nunn 👩🏼🇬🇧
Directors: Kate Herron 👩🏼🇬🇧 (4 eps), Ben Taylor 👨🏼🇬🇧 (4 eps)
Writers: Laurie Nunn 👩🏼🇬🇧, Sophie Goodhart 👩🏼🇬🇧 (3 eps), Bisha K. Ali 👩🏽🇬🇧 (1 ep), Laura Hunter 👩🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep), Laura Neal 👩🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep), Freddy Syborn 👨🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
One of the many things that Netflix sensation To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) validated is that romantic comedies are far from dead. The streaming giant’s latest series, Sex Education, revives the teen rom-com popularized in the ‘80s and ‘90s for a Gen Z audience. Directors Kate Herron and Ben Taylor lean into the nostalgia, styling the cast in a mishmash of vintage looks lifted straight from Sixteen Candles (1984) or Clueless (1995). The soundtrack includes throwbacks like Bikini Kill, Billy Idol, The Cure, as well as songs from the 1998 musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Although filmed in Wales, the story’s backdrop of Moordale Secondary School more closely resembles the American high school seen in movies, complete with band geeks, mean girls, and jocks in letterman jackets.
But unlike the John Hughes movies of yesteryear, Sex Education strives to break down stereotypes. Teenage problems in all their complications fall on the attentive ears of the main character Otis (Asa Butterfield), who gets roped into serving as a sex therapist for his hormonally confused classmates. Despite his own sexual inexperience, he’s able to channel much of the knowledge he’s absorbed from his mother Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), an actual sex therapist. His unofficial “clinic” provides a safe space where the challenges facing young people today—everything from bullying to dating to the struggle of maintaining privacy in the era of smartphones—can be unpacked and resolved in each episode.
At times, the format can feel restrictive, flattening potentially complex characters into plot devices. But overall, the inclusion of interesting female roles, a racially diverse cast, and multiple instances of LGBTQ representation appears to be done in good faith. For Gen X and Millennial viewers, the show simultaneously indulges our yearning for the past while allowing us to see it through a more forward-looking lens.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Anderson is incredibly memorable as a pot-smoking, sex-positive single mom. She’s trying her best to raise an emotionally intelligent son, though she often fails at letting go and giving him the space he demands. Most importantly, Jean is shown to be more than just a maternal figure. She’s an older woman who knows her own mind, and she’s unapologetic about having professional ambitions and a sex life outside of motherhood.
Female desire and pleasure are recurring themes in the narrative. In addition to celebrating Jean’s sex drive, the series drives home the lesson of consent. Otis teaches boys to listen to girls, just as he encourages girls to listen to themselves and their bodies. There’s also an unapologetically pro-choice episode that deals head on with abortion—something that’s rarely depicted without hand-wringing, this side of the Atlantic at least.
The most inconsistent character is the school’s unattainable “bad girl” Maeve (Emma Mackey), who also happens to be Otis’ crush. She vacillates between empowering moments—such as speaking out against slut-shaming—and falling into the traps of being an objectified female love interest. Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), the school’s star athlete, combines several rom-com tropes as seen in She’s All That (1999) or 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) when he asks Otis to help him woo Maeve by catering to her interests. He finally wins her over with an over-the-top, grand gesture she purportedly dislikes but for some reason accepts. On the one hand, the storyline pokes fun at performative male feminists. But on the other, it weirdly dismisses Maeve’s feminism as just another way that women flirt or play hard to get.
Moordale as an Americanized version of British secondary school, combined with the campus’ idyllic yet remote locale, represents a kind of globalized fantasy. The student body reflects an embrace of multiculturalism, in which Black and brown kids effortlessly mingle with their white peers at every echelon of popularity. Jackson exudes the effortless cool of an Obama-like figure. The fashionable “Untouchables” clique boasts not one but two South Asian students: Olivia (Simone Ashley) and Anwar (Chaneil Kular).
This post-racial approach, however, tends to overlook the real-world prejudices that people of color face. Though still clearly pining after Maeve, Otis decides to invite a new transfer student, Ola (Patricia Allison), to the school dance. As the evening unravels, he blurts out a shallow comparison between the two girls that makes clear to Ola, who is biracial and sports a cropped Afro, that she doesn’t measure up to Maeve. Beyond simply hurting Ola’s feelings, Otis demonstrates a failure to examine his implicit biases, which favor a girl who is blonde and white over someone who does not fit the conventional mold.
Luckily, Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is given screentime to explore his complicated relationship with his devoutly religious, Ghanaian-Nigerian immigrant family. His character’s arc proves to be one of the most heartfelt of the entire series, and Gatwa’s comedic instincts easily steal every scene.
As a dark-skinned Black boy with an affection for glittery makeup and heels, Eric offers a much-needed alternative to the masculine gay white men that populate queer representation in media. Better yet, Eric is not the only LGBTQ character: Anwar is also openly gay, Jackson has two moms, and another lesbian couple at school pays Otis for his services. Yet, Eric is the only LGBTQ character that the series delves into. For this reason, the writers are forced to mine as much pathos as possible out of his storyline.
Not only is Eric the target of bullying at school, he also becomes the victim of an unrelated hate crime. The incident reflects the troubling fact that LGBTQ are targets of more hate crimes than any other minority around the world. But Otis’ lack of concern when he finds out what happened makes the act of violence seem more like a plot point intended to create conflict in their relationship—especially considering that it was Otis’ self-centeredness that led him to ditch his best friend and leave him vulnerable in the first place. Eric and Otis eventually reconcile at the prom, where they dance together in a beautiful display of male friendship. It’s a genuinely sweet moment. Yet, tying a bow on the ordeal also glosses over how Otis lets Eric down as both an ally and a friend.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Sex Education admirably attempts to cultivate an inclusive and intersectional microcosm. Considering that it still largely centers a white, heteronormative gaze, the series doesn’t always succeed at nuance when it comes to the portrayals of its supporting characters. But it’s certainly one of the smarter television shows about modern-day teens available to American audiences—and one that older viewers can enjoy, as well.