You’re an insecure, bright, sensitive teenage boy with a wildly uninhibited sex-guru mother, an absentee dad, a chronically foot-in-mouth bully-magnet best friend, a limited social life and a clinically interesting fear of your own penis. You have a stealth crush on your school’s official Way Too Precocious girl, who’s hard up for money. So, naturally, you open a sex clinic for high-school students in an out-of-service school lavatory, right?
Of course you do.
Netflix’s Sex Education is a decidedly raunchy and thoroughly adorable coming-of-age dramedy. While it’s not exactly afraid of well-worn tropes, it also doesn’t rely on them to a detrimental degree… and it has Gillian Anderson as a sex therapist, which would be enough for a lot of us even if nothing else about the show worked. Otis (Asa Butterfield) is a milky-skinned skinny kid whose extremely “liberated” mother (Anderson) might just be overcompensating for some serious abandonment issues; she’s all for having an earnest and excruciating heart-to-heart about masturbation, but you get the funny sense that she’s terrified of actually letting Otis grow up. Otis is good at academics and socially a bit awkward. His ebullient best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), attracts a lot of attention from the school bully, Adam (Connor Swindells), whose father is headmaster. The cool kids won’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. But the school’s Designated Skank, Maeve (Emma Mackey), has noticed that Otis is strikingly good at helping people confront their insecurities, so she offers to market his services as… a sex therapist. Considering Otis is a petrified virgin who can’t even touch himself without activating a gag reflex, he’s shockingly adroit at encouraging other people toward self-acceptance.
Sex Education is a testament to the power of character development. The narrative is nothing revolutionary, and the directorial sensibility won’t necessarily become the stuff of auteur theory graduate seminars, but the series is riveting, and that’s almost 100% due to its superbly crafted characters, almost none of whom waste a single frame. (There are a handful of throwaway minor characters who lean on teen stereotypes, but they’re incidental enough to the story that more is not required of them.) The acting is stellar, and even the supporting characters shine (James Purefoy as Otis’s philandering therapist father is epically hilarious) thanks to rock-solid casting, an intelligent script, and attention to detail. Even when the story is predictable (and it is, here and there), the characters are multifaceted enough to transcend that and sincere enough that you cannot help liking them—even the school bully. No: Especially the school bully, even though most of his moves are predictable. (Look, he just wants to be a normal guy with a normal dad. And a normal dick.)
Beneath the comedic layer, there’s also a pretty satisfying level of depth to the investigation, not just of sexual mores and adolescent longings, but of fairly thorny stuff, like the traumas of being over-parented or seriously under-parented, the pitfalls of parental honesty, of trusting people after you’ve been betrayed a few times, and of reconciling the fundamentally irreconcilable. The series manages to look into these things in a beautifully non-judgmental way-in fact, non-judgment might be its secret power source. Everything is on the table, and as unflinchingly neutral as it is in its depictions of sexuality, it’s equally so in its contemplation of class, social hierarchy, faith, ethics, family structures, and parent-child relationships.
Fans of Gillian Anderson will squeal several times per episode; fans of British witticism likewise. The series is extremely explicit, so if that bugs you, well: You were warned. But it doesn’t feel pointlessly or unduly explicit, just a bit raw. It makes some predictable moves, but Sex Education is pretty much the most adorable show I’ve seen in a long time. It’s frank and sincere and gleefully awkward. As an anatomy of teen sexuality, it’s basically peerless, and it offers a thoughtful script, a strikingly good cast and a heart-forward story about “owning your narrative.”
I mean, in the end, what else is really ours to own?
Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.