For most people, being a teenager is awkward, weird, random, and confusing. Netflix’s series Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, not only understands that but leans into it completely. The show stars Asa Butterfield as Otis, a sixth former (high schooler, for Americans — the series is set in the UK) who starts an underground therapy clinic for his peers. Or, as one classmate describes him, he is “that weird sex kid who looks like a Victorian ghost.”
Otis is not a sex guru because he’s experienced, though. He’s a virgin, but he is also mostly disgusted by the idea of having an erection, and can’t masturbate. But he’s learned quite a bit from his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), and he has a natural ability to talk with others through issues surrounding relations and relationships. The clinic idea comes from a smart, smokey-eyed schoolmate, Maeve (Emma Mackey, a Margot Robbie clone), after witnessing Otis using his skills to counsel a school bully about why he has trouble ejaculating.
If it wasn’t already clear, Sex Education is very explicit. There are plenty of frank discussions about sex and anatomy, as well as full nudity. Most episodes revolve around a kind of Case of the Week that’s teased in a cold open, although the show uses that to evolve its major narratives, and doesn’t always end the hour with the problem being solved. Otis’ advice for his classmates is also usually more about their psyche and expectations than sexual positions. “What makes you feel like you have to give your boyfriend a blowjob?” he asks one “client,” and tells another to name five things she likes about herself. The show is careful to normalize an array of preferences, including not having sex at all.
But like the teen years themselves, Sex Education can be awkward. Its first episodes (and its first episode in particular) can feel more like they are based on filmic ideas of high school than actual high school. But the series also quickly puts those growing pains behind it, and ends up handling some very difficult material with depth and emotion. Sex Education is at its best when it zigs after setting up a zag; the things that feel tropey or like something we’ve seen in a hundred other teen comedies don’t land, but when the show does something unique and real, it’s exceptionally good.
Though it’s set in the present day, the series often feels out of time — cellphones play a role, but they don’t dominate life. There’s not a clear sense of general location or a specific sense of the town and school (called Moorhead), but that ambiguity also gives the story a universal feel. Otis’ issues with his mother are funny and a little outrageous, but at its core they’re about a parent who’s not ready to let their child grow up. Or the case of Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), it’s about reconciling your sexuality with faith and family. Otis tells a fellow student early in the series to “own your narrative,” which sounds like something Olivia Pope would counsel on Scandal. But it’s really what Sex Education is all about, like when social outcast Maeve or the uber popular Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) both confront difficult truths about what they want from life, and how that might be at odds with what they’ve known so far. Finding and owning that sense of self is the series’ throughline, and it has occasionally potent payoffs.
One particular stand-out story is that of Adam (Connor Swindells), the headmaster’s son and aforementioned school bully, who is perhaps the series’ most layered and intriguing character. Adam struggles throughout the season to come to terms with who he is and what he wants, and Swindells gives an absolutely engrossing portrayal of this conflicted young man, while also having incredibly comedic timing. The entire cast is wonderful at balancing those elements, particularly Gatwa with his charming exuberance and Butterfield in his perfecting of bumbling awkwardness. Anderson provides a serene foil for Otis’ anxious ways, but gets her own moments of humor that are particularly jolly. (James Purefoy’s few cameo scenes as Jean’s ex-husband and Otis’ father Remi are also hilarious).
Sex Education is, perhaps like Otis, more charming than it has any right to be, making it extremely easy to feel emotionally invested in the lives of these kids (and choice few adults) who are all just trying to figure themselves out. Its upfront inclusion of sex in a real and grounded way (rather than just for comedic effect) also makes it different from other coming-of-age stories or teen comedies. In a swift 8 episodes, the series explores a variety of different high school experiences, and even when it falters, it still feels genuine. That sincerity counts for a lot when it comes to teen-oriented tales, and the series’ frankness is also refreshing. True to life, not everything is resolved immediately, and Otis’ advice isn’t always solid. People hold grudges, hearts are broken, and not all stories of unrequited love get a happy ending. But Sex Education is just as much about the triumphs, the times things do go right, and the consequences of emotional vulnerability that ultimately make it a happy and satisfying watch.
Sex Education premieres Friday, January 11th on Netflix.